The Red Dragon spacecraft looks almost shy set against Mars’ monotone surface, a lens flare giving the picture a dreamy Pixar feel. But SpaceX’s plans to touch down on Mars is more than just an adorable fantasy: They’re materializing, and fast. The company recently revealed its plans to land an unmanned capsule on Mars by 2018.
It’s an unparalleled undertaking for a private company. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder, has alluded to colonizing Mars for years in case this whole Earth thing doesn’t work out. But sending Dragon 2 — nicknamed the Red Dragon — marks the first stride toward making Mars inhabitable. It’s also the first time that an independently financed mission would, in essence, trump a government agency’s mission.
Recently tested Dragon 2’s SuperDraco propulsive landing system at our McGregor, TX facility. Key for Mars landing pic.twitter.com/dV1nhKDMhr
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 27, 2016
So what is it? Pictures show the Dragon 2 not only quietly hunkered down on Mars but also blazing to its surface. The capsule is an update on the current Dragon that resupplies the International Space Station — and at about around 6,000 kilograms, it’s significantly heavier than any other spacecraft that’s descended to the planet’s surface. (In comparison, Curiosity has a mass of about 900 kg.) Like other robotics that have made it, it would be unmanned, though it will be tweaked to seat seven people. SpaceX expects to test a crewed flight in the next few years.
As Musk tweeted, the upgraded Dragon will be designed to land anywhere in the solar system, and its insides are about the size of a sports utility vehicle. The key to throttling costs, as with SpaceX’s other propulsion endeavors, is reuse, as it demonstrated with the revolutionary landing of its Falcon 9 rocket. If proven successful, the Dragon would be able to regularly drop off supplies on Mars to set up its resources for a future crew and, eventually, colonization.
After the announcement, NASA’s deputy administrator took to a blog to clarify that NASA will provide technical support, but no finances, to the expedition. Whether SpaceX meets its 2018 deadline or not, one thing is certain: Though the firm partners with NASA, it has the potential to reshape space efforts as we know them. NASA wants to send astronauts to Mars by 2030, but with privatized space travel eking its way into (and beyond) the space exploration atmosphere, we may be on a whole new ride.