On Tuesday Elon Musk revealed SpaceX’s Interplanetary Colonial Transporter, the launch system the company hope will make their ambitious Mars plans a reality.
Talking to an engaged audience at the International Astronautical Congress meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, the SpaceX CEO discussed in great length how he hopes the colonisation of Mars will take place over the coming decades.
Although Musk didn’t delve into the technical details of the plans, we were easily able to get a good idea of the scale of the project. He noted each spaceship would be home to between 100 and 200 people, and there could be potentially up to a thousand ships leaving Earth to the Red Planet at every window of opportunity.
The rocket will stand taller and wider than any rocket has ever done before. Measuring 122 metres in height and 12 metres in diameter, the historic Saturn V rocket, that launched mankind to the Moon in the late 60s and early 70s, would simply be dwarfed in comparison.
Tickets to Mars will be in the region of $200,000. Musk said the only way a ticket could be that cheap is if four main concepts were abided to. These methods include using reusable rockets, in-orbit refuelling, the use of methane fuel, and the ability to produce fuel on Mars.
The key feature of the ITS’ rocket booster is its reusability. Like the Falcon 9 rockets of today, the scaled up version of the booster will also need to perform landings and relaunches to keep costs down and provide maximum cadence. Unlike the Falcon 9, the ITS booster won’t need landing legs. Instead it will land exactly where it launched from, and the pad will help guide it to a safe resting point. From there, refilling of the booster can begin soon after.
Musk also highlighted the use of in-orbit refuelling as a key element of the system. Two types of spaceships would be created, one for human payloads and another for fuel payloads. The manned spaceship would be launched into space, then refuelled by a tanker in space later on. This would maintain the ability to send the maximum payload to Mars, which SpaceX estimate to be around 450T in mass.
The major issue the company is facing is money. It won’t surprise you to hear that a rocket and spaceship of this magnitude is going to cost a lot, and Musk knows it is going to be hard to get funding for it. With a rough estimation of $10 billion, SpaceX will need to run up funding from public sources such as NASA, but also private sources like sponsorships.
“I know there’s a lot of people in the private sector interested in funding a trip to Mars, hopefully there will be interest in the government side as well,” Musk said. “Ultimately this will be a huge private-public partnership.”
Musk believes that it could take up to 100 years for his dream of a self-sustaining Martian civilisation to become reality. Initially the first flights to Mars will be unmanned, with Red Dragon missions taking place in 2018 and 2020. SpaceX hope to begin colonial missions as early as the mid-2020s, however Musk admitted this schedule may be optimistic.
Ever since the formation of SpaceX in 2002, CEO and founder Elon Musk has had his eye on Mars. SpaceX’s first venture into space came with the Falcon 1 rocket, a relatively small liquid-propellant rocket which reached orbit for the first time in 2008. Following on from that success, the company developed the Falcon 9 rocket capable of lifting their very own Dragon capsule to the ISS. The Falcon 9 has remained the workhorse of SpaceX, and has been upgraded throughout its operational lifetime.
Recent developments have focused on the reusability of rockets, that Musk says are an essential for the Mars goal to be realised. By reusing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, the cost of each rocket will drop dramatically, reducing the cost of access to space. Landing legs and grid fins were added to the Falcon 9 rocket, and despite several failed landing attempts at sea, the booster finally touched down in December 2015 following the launch of ORBCOMM-2.
The IAC talk came at a rough time for SpaceX. Following the Amos-6 anomaly at the start of the month, the company has had to postpone launches while the team investigate the causes of the incident. Musk stated after the event that they were still having trouble finding a solution, noting it has been the “most vexing and difficult thing”.
With the Mars plans now laid out for the world to admire, we’ll just have to wait and see if these magnificent plans come to fruition.
Elon Musk founded SpaceX with the eventual goal of colonising Mars and making our species multi-planetary. On September 27 Musk will reveal plans regarding the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) and the MCT (Mars Colonial Transporter) which will work in tandem to launch hundreds of people to Mars.
Founded in 2002 with the goal of Mars colonisation, the company has spent the past fourteen years developing rocket technology to deliver payloads to Earth’s orbit and beyond. Their first venture into space came with the Falcon 1 rocket, a relatively small liquid-propellant rocket which reached orbit for the first time in 2008. Following on from that success, the company developed the Falcon 9 rocket capable of lifting their very own Dragon capsule to the ISS. The Falcon 9 has remained the workhorse of SpaceX, and has been upgraded throughout its operational lifetime.
Recent developments have focused on the reusability of rockets, that Musk says are an essential for the Mars goal to be realised. By reusing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, the cost of each rocket will drop dramatically, reducing the cost of access to space. Landing legs and grid fins were added to the rocket, and following several failed landing attempts at sea, the Falcon 9 finally touched down in December 2015 following the launch of ORBCOMM-2. Since then the company has landed six first stage boosters, which SpaceX hopes to relaunch later this year.
The future is bright for SpaceX, and for us enthusiasts excited to see what is next, the IAC conference on the 27th of September can’t come soon enough. Elon Musk is set to provide details on the Mars architecture that he hopes will ignite the colonisation of the Red Planet and make the human species multi-planetary. It is expected that the Big Falcon Rocket, a name that could be changed at this conference, will be revealed as the largest rocket to ever be built. Early speculation suggests that the Saturn V, the rocket that took humans to the Moon, could be dwarfed in size by the BFR. Additionally, we expect details about the Mars Colonial Transporter to be revealed, including the human capacity which Musk has hinted in previous years could be in the hundreds.
While this all sounds surreal, SpaceX rarely fails to deliver. In fourteen years the company has gone from an ambitious idea from Musk to a space industry leader with the ability to land and (in the coming months) reuse first stage boosters. Musk is expected to reveal the timeline for the first human landing on Mars, a date that if successful will be sure to go down in human history as one of mankind’s greatest achievements.
The Asteroid Belt
Between the red planet, Mars, and the gaseous giant of the Solar System, Jupiter, lies the main Asteroid Belt. The region is home to the majority of asteroids under the influence of the Sun, which many scientists believe to number in the billions. Although most are small, rocky boulders, some are far larger - Ceres, Vesta, Pallas and Hygiea, to name just a few.
The discovery of the first objects in the Asteroid Belt came in the early 1800s. Johann Titius, an 18th Century astronomer, predicted the existence of a planet between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers spent several years searching the sky for this missing planet, until in 1801 Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazza finally discovered Ceres, the largest object in the Asteroid Belt.
The origins of the Asteroid Belt have long been argued by scientists. Today, the scientific consensus is that the belt was the result of the failure to form another planet. During the early days of the Solar System’s formation, dust and rocks came together to form planets. However, the immense gravitational influence of Jupiter disrupted the formation process of the rocks found between Mars and Jupiter, resulting in a scattering of asteroids between the two planets.
Some asteroids are composed of precious metals such as nickel, iron and titanium. Such metals are sought after on Earth, making asteroids an attractive target for space mining in the future. There have been several proposals from private companies and NASA to develop technologies that would enable asteroid mining to become a reality. One such proposal is the Asteroid Redirect Mission from NASA. Although still in the early stages of planning, the mission would involve retrieving a boulder from a large near-Earth asteroid and redirecting it to a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon. Such an endeavour would allow humans to visit the boulder and analyse its composition to a far higher degree than already possible.
Missions to asteroids are always scientifically fruitful. The Dawn spacecraft not only visited Vesta in 2011, but also entered orbit around Ceres in March of last year and has since sent back valuable data giving scientists on Earth clues as to its history in the Solar System. NASA are expected to learn even more about asteroids when ORIRIS-Rex reaches its target asteroid Bennu in 2018. One of the key scientific objectives of the mission is to return to Earth a sample of the asteroid. Such material could help scientists learn more about the formation and evolution of the early Solar System.
Space Launch Complex 40
Space Launch Complex 40 is located at the northern end of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launchpad is currently home to the Falcon 9 rocket, delivering both commercial and NASA payloads to low Earth orbit and beyond.
LC-40 was first used in 1965 with the maiden flight of the Titan IIIC. Between 1965 and 2005 there were 30 Titan IIC, 8 Titan 34D and 17 Titan IV launches. Notable payloads include the failed Mars Observer spacecraft, launched in 1992, and the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, which launched in 1997 and arrived at the gas giant Saturn in 2004.
Since 2007 the launchpad has been leased to commercial launch provider SpaceX for their Falcon 9 rocket. The pad has conducted 13 Falcon 9 launches from 2010 to 2015. Among these launches there have been several successful missions to the International Space Station with the Dragon cargo spacecraft and a number of commercial satellite missions to both low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit. The only failure to note was the CRS-7 mission in late June, where the Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated shortly after lift-off.
SpaceX plan to retain the launchpad for many years to come. With the upgrades to SLC-39 expected to be complete by 2016, the Falcon Heavy and commercial crew involvement will not change how SpaceX use the historic launchpad.
The Commercial Crew Program
The Commercial Crew Program was first announced in December 2009. The objectives of the program set out by NASA was to stimulate the commercial space industry; facilitate commercial demonstration of crew transportation abilities; and achieve safer, more reliable, more cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit. Following the finale of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, the program became even more significant as a gap appeared where no human spaceflight would launch from American soil for several years.
Crew Dragon is the second version of the Dragon spacecraft. First revealed in May 2014, the spacecraft will be human-rated, performing crew transport between Earth and the ISS as part of the Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft will fly atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral. Up to seven astronauts will be able to ride aboard what Elon Musk calls a 21st Century space vehicle.
The launch pad abort test of the Crew Dragon occurred on May 6 2015. This tested the spacecraft’s ability to quickly leave a rocket disaster and therefore keep the crew alive. The Crew Dragon could make its first flight as early as late 2016, where an unmanned test flight to the ISS would occur. However, this date is not set in stone. Similarly, if all goes to plan the first manned mission of the spacecraft could occur as soon as late 2017.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner
The Boeing Crew Space Transportation system will also be transporting crew to the International Space Station from 2017. The space capsule can transport up to seven passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, to low-Earth orbit. The vehicle will have flight compatibility with rockets Atlas V, Delta IV, Falcon 9 and the planned Vulcan rocket announced in 2015. The vehicle will have the ability to stay in orbit for up to seven months, and could be reused up to ten times.
Unlike SpaceX, Boeing are leaving their pad abort test until just months before the debut launch. Currently scheduled for February 2017, the capsule will be expected to prove that it can escape a catastrophic issue with the rocket. If successful, an unscrewed test mission will launch to the ISS in April 2017 and a crewed version in July. However, these dates are optimistic and are likely to change.