SpaceX revealed Wednesday its plan for a test flight to Mars "as soon as 2018." A Falcon Heavy rocket would launch a modified Dragon spacecraft to the red planet, but first missions would not include a human crew. SpaceX would use the initial flights as a proof of concept with data informing future missions to Mars.
SpaceX shared the news on social media with additional details provided by founder and CEO Elon Musk. The Dragon 2 would have the ability to land on any surface, but how long it would survive would be subject to conditions on the planet. Dragon 2 could land on Venus, but it would only last a few hours, Musk said in reply to a question on Twitter. "SpaceX is planning to send Dragons to Mars as early as 2018. Red Dragon missions will help inform the overall Mars architecture that will be unveiled later this year," the company wrote on Facebook.
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 Dragon 2 spacecraft would use SuperDraco engines to land on Mars. The propulsive landing system is an upgrade from the Draco engines that propel the Dragon in resupply missions to the International Space Station. The engine chamber, a main component of each SuperDraco, is 3D printed. The propulsive system that will be used to land a Dragon spacecraft on Mars will consist of eight SuperDraco engines delivering up to 120,000 pounds of thrust. If successful, SpaceX would be the first private company to land on another planet.
SpaceX's ambitious plans follow previous statements by Musk stating the company would send astronauts to Mars by 2025. Colonizing Mars is also on Musk's long-term agenda. "Now is the first time in the history of Earth that the window is open, where it's possible for us to extend life to another planet," said Musk during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December 2015.
SpaceX is currently contracted by NASA for satellite launches, cargo resupply missions to the space station and, by next year, manned launches to the space station. The company also launches satellites for commercial partners. After its historic landing on an ocean barge, SpaceX's next launch is scheduled for May 4.