Elon Musk has always been quite vocal about his ambitions to colonize Mars, even calling it crucial “to safeguard the existence of humanity.” Next week, the SpaceX CEO will finally provide details of how he and his company plan to do it.
According to the program schedule for the prestigious International Astronautical Congress (IAC) slated to begin in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Monday, Musk will give a speech on “Making Humans an Interplanetary Species.”
“Elon Musk will discuss the long-term technical challenges that need to be solved to support the creation of a permanent, self-sustaining human presence on Mars,” the IAC said. “The technical presentation will focus on potential architectures for colonizing the Red Planet that industry, government and the scientific community can collaborate on in the years ahead.”
So far, beyond disclosing that SpaceX hopes to send its first uncrewed Dragon capsule to Mars in 2018, Musk has been tight-lipped about his plans. SpaceX, which is yet to carry humans to outer space, hopes to launch the first humans to Mars as early as 2024 — years before NASA plans to do so sometime in the 2030s.
One of the key challenges any spacecraft seeking to make a soft landing on Mars would face is that the thin atmosphere of the red planet provides barely any air resistance. This challenge would be massively amplified when SpaceX tries to land the Red Dragon capsule, which — at between 8 to 10 tons — would be the heaviest payload ever sent to Mars.
SpaceX plans to address this issue by using what it calls a “supersonic retropropulsion” technology. Instead of using parachutes, the Dragon capsule would use its SuperDraco thrusters to slow down before landing.
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
The mission would also be closely watched by NASA, which is likely to spend approximately $32 million on SpaceX’s Red Dragon mission. If the uncrewed Red Dragon test is successful, it will pave the way for NASA to use the spacecraft for manned missions to Mars.
For its crewed missions to Mars though, the company plans to use an entirely different technology — the still mysterious Interplanetary Transport System. In a tweet last week, Musk said further details of the technology would be provided during next week’s IAC.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 18, 2016
However, getting to Mars is just one of the many problems humans attempting to colonize the planet will face. NASA, which last year unveiled a three-stage program to send astronauts to Mars — one that many criticized as unrealistic — is still facing several key technological hurdles insofar as building and sustaining human-compatible colonies on the rugged and heavily irradiated surface of the red planet are concerned.
Where would the first humans on Mars live? How would these colonies be shielded against hazardous radiation from the sun and cosmic rays? How would such colonies be sustained, given that nothing grows in the near vacuum of Mars? How much would a manned mission to Mars cost, and how will it be funded?
These are just some of the questions many would be looking for answers to when Musk delivers his speech on Tuesday.
"Providing enough food, water, and air is the number one requirement, and most people that have looked at it agree it’s very hard to do that for a long mission, unless you make these things on Mars," Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, told the Verge. "Maybe the first few years you can bring your own food, but eventually you’ll have to grow your own food."