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Dragon offers ticket to Mars

An aircraft carrier designed for low Earth orbit could provide a cheap route to the Red Planet.

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An artist’s impression of the SpaceX Dragon capsule reaching the surface of Mars, which some say could be achieved in early 2018.
Credit: SpaceX

Dragon, the privately built space capsule intended to transport cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), is auditioning for another high-profile role. Its manufacturer, SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, says the capsule, which will make its first test flight to the ISS later this month, could be sent to Mars, dramatically lowering the cost of exploring the Red Planet. Together with researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, the company is working on a proposal for a first ‘Red Dragon’ mission.

In a presentation at a meeting of NASA science advisors in Washington DC on October 31, the group advocated reusing Dragon and the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch rocket to send an ice simulant that would search for life near the poles of Mars. The mission could launch as early as 2018 for a cost of $500 million, proponents say, well within the budget of NASA’s least expensive class of planetary missions.

“These are early ideas,” says James Green, head of NASA’s planetary science division, who invited the presentation. Although NASA officials are cautious, the fact that the proposal has been submitted is revealing at a time of tight budgets.

Christopher McKay, Ames principal investigator for the Mars proposal, called ‘Icebreaker,’ says the mission would target polar terrain where there is ice near the surface, similar to that probed by the Phoenix spacecraft in 2008. Capable of drilling through permafrost meter thick, the robotic drill would retrieve samples for an onboard laboratory that would search for DNA and enzymes.

Not all space is the same, and deep space is quite different. ,

The most challenging part of any mission to Mars is taking a spacecraft through the Martian atmosphere at high speed and then slowing it down to a soft landing. Proponents of the Red Dragon concept say this could be done by using the eight small rocket motors that will be added to the capsule to escape the Falcon 9 rocket, a requirement for carrying humans, in the event of an aborted launch. These engines would slow the capsule’s descent and allow it to land tail-first, says John Karcz, an Ames space scientist leading NASA’s evaluation of the concept.

Scott Hubbard, an aeronautical engineer at Stanford University in California and a former director of Ames, is skeptical, questioning whether retrorockets alone could slow down the capsule. All previous Mars landers have used parachutes. He points out that a capsule designed to operate close to Earth will need big changes to deal with the challenges of communications and extreme temperatures in interplanetary space. “All space is not the same, and deep space is quite different.”

However, the prospect of a fast and cheap route to the red planet could be attractive to Mars scientists, whose other plans are failing due to budget constraints. Another proposed 2018 mission, a rover that would collect rocks in the first part of a three-stage effort to bring samples back to Earth, would cost $2.5 billion, a figure NASA hopes to split with the European Space Agency. But that hasn’t been enough to put off US President Barack Obama’s budget advisers, who are wary of the total $8.5 billion cost of the multiple-launch project and are threatening to leave the missions out of future budget requests.

McKay says some colleagues are concerned that Red Dragon will undermine the momentum of the 2018 rover mission. “I can see how some people would see that as a threat,” he says, but adds that if Red Dragon ends up being the cheapest way to reach Mars, he should get a fair hearing. He says that Ames and SpaceX will refine the proposal in preparation for a planetary mission competition that could start in 2013.

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Hand, E. Dragon offers ticket to Mars.
Nature (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/479162a

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