SpaceX Plans Mars Landing | Vol. 4 / No. 21.1

Red Dragon | Image: SpaceX

At a Brown University Microsymposium this week, SpaceX announced that it’s been working with NASA to pick a landing site for its first “Red Dragon” mission, likely to launch in 2020.

The Microsymposium, titled “Surface Exploration and Sample Return: A New Era in Planetary Sciences,” took place over the weekend in Texas, and included panel discussions on asteroids, Mars, the moon, and Mars’s moons Phobos and Deimos (among other topics!). But of course the bit of news that send Reddit’s r/spacex community aflutter was about everyone’s favourite supervillain’s ongoing plan to not so much seek out new life (as the saying goes) but be that new life, on Mars.

SpaceX made waves last year when it announced that once its Falcon Heavy rockets were launching—those are slated to start later this year—it would be making an attempt to land one of its Dragon capsules on Mars. This would be notable for a number of reasons, not least of which is the manner in which it would be landing.

Right now, there’s a limit to how much mass we can put on Mars at one time, and that limit is due to the difficulty we have in slowing down once we get to the red planet. When we land things on Earth, we take advantage of the thick atmosphere to slow down, but Mars has only 1% of the atmospheric density of Earth, meaning that air braking isn’t very effective. (Right now NASA is still working on inflatable rings and large, hypersonic-deployment parachutes to catch what little atmosphere there is, to mixed results.)

But the Red Dragon (like the Crew Dragon… eventually) plans to land propulsively (i.e. with rockets) meaning the atmospheric near-absence isn’t likely to be a problem. And if they can do that, the amount of mass they can land is limited only by the amount of fuel they carry.

The presentation—given by Paul Wooster, the Spacecraft GNC Manager for SpaceX—outlined a pair of somewhat opposed criteria for landing sites. On the one hand, they want ice—which means higher latitudes—and on the other hand, they want strong solar power—which means lower latitudes. As a result they’ve stuck to the iciest-looking places below 40 degrees latitude.

The most promising of the short list is Arcadia Planitia, with its “polygonal terrain” that one reddit user suggested could be indicative of subsurface water.

Wooster also left the final choice of locations open-ended, reminding the audience that SpaceX is a commercial enterprise, and that if anyone needed a payload sent to Mars, they’d be more than happy to discuss it. As Space News reported, he went on the record as saying that the company is “really looking to turn this into a steady cadence, where we’re sending Dragons to Mars on basically every opportunity.”

Anyway, you can’t buy a ticket just yet, but if everything goes according to plan—and remember, Space Is Hard—then we’ll see a commercial spaceship landing on Mars in mid-2020. But remember, with the Falcon Heavy yet to even fly, there’s a whole lot of caveats to consider.

You can read more about it over at Space News.

Happy Monday, all.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.