Here's how SpaceX plans to land on Mars in 2018
On Wednesday, Elon Musk's private company SpaceX announced on Twitter that it plans to send a spacecraft to Mars as soon as 2018.
The mission - which SpaceX is calling "Red Dragon" - will involve sending a Dragon 2 spacecraft to Mars to retrieve samples collected by NASA's Mars rover and then return them to Earth.
Here's SpaceX's annoucement:
Planning to send Dragon to Mars as soon as 2018. Red Dragons will inform overall Mars architecture, details to come pic.twitter.com/u4nbVUNCpA- SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 27, 2016
SpaceX has had big plans to usher in a new era of reusable rockets that could send the first humans to Mars and return them home for a while. In 2011, SpaceX released a video showing how they were going to re-land a rocket booster after launching it to space - something that had never been done before.
On December 21, 2015, SpaceX succesfully landed its first reusable rocket, a Falcon 9, on a launch pad. They followed that up on April 8, 2016 by successfully landing another Falcon 9 on a barge floating in the ocean. Musk has announced plans to relaunch
Judging from the illustrations on their Flickr account, SpaceX plans to land on Mars using a simple approach that's never been tried before.
This is SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, which is not designed to carry humans, sitting on the Red Planet:
That rocket is SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, illustrated below, that is scheduled to launch out of Kennedy Space Center for the first time next year.
The Martian atmosphere is about 1,000 times thinner than Earth's, so simple parachutes won't slow a vehicle down enough to land safely.
But that atmosphere is still thick enough to generate a great deal of heat from friction against a spacecraft.Therefore, to land on Mars you have to have a spacecraft with a heat shield that can withstand temperature of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit.
Luckily, Dragon's heat shield can protect it against temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so plummeting toward Mars, illustrated below, shouldn't be a problem heat-wise.
The way that SpaceX aims to deal with this tricky problem is to use the thrusters on board the Dragon spacecraft to first redirect its momentum from downward to sideways, as illustrated below, thus reducing its speed:"7 minutes of terror" because that's how long it took to enter the atmosphere and land.
But the technology isn't ready for human passengers just yet. Musk tweeted that the Dragon might not be the most comfortable environment for space explorers.
But wouldn't recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region. Wouldn't be fun for longer journeys. Internal volume ~size of SUV.- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 27, 2016
The Red Dragon mission marks an important milestone in the partnership between NASA and SpaceX, bringing them one step closer to achieving their goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s.
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