If SpaceX is able to dispatch a robotic Dragon capsule to land on the red planet in 2018 on time and successfully, engineers stand to get a lesson on what it will take to eventually send humans there, capturing key data on an untested Mars landing scheme a decade sooner than NASA could it, space agency officials said this week.
Billed as a high-risk, high-reward test flight, the unpiloted Red Dragon mission aims to be the first commercial spacecraft to go to another planet, and land the heaviest vehicle ever put on the surface of Mars.
SpaceX has not disclosed many details about the mission, but company chief Elon Musk is scheduled to reveal his plans for human expeditions to Mars at a global space conference in Mexico in September.
Jim Reuter, deputy associate administrator for programs in NASA’s space technology mission directorate, said this week that SpaceX’s Red Dragon demo mission will inform major tech initiatives needed before astronauts can land on Mars.
“The two technologies that are needed no matter which way we go are precision landing and supersonic retro-propulsion,” Reuter told a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s technology and innovation committee Tuesday.
NASA will offer its Deep Space Network, a set of large dish antennas in California, Spain and Australia, to communicate with SpaceX’s Red Dragon spacecraft, and interplanetary navigation experts at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will plot the ship’s trajectory toward Mars.
Government engineers will also help SpaceX select a suitable landing site, analyze Red Dragon’s entry, descent and landing system, and review the craft’s autonomy fault tolerance, operability and qualification approaches, Reuter said.
NASA’s investment over four years is estimated at about $32 million in the form of staff hours and technical analysis.
Asked how much SpaceX is spending on the privately-funded one-way Red Dragon mission, Reuter estimated the company’s costs are about 10 times more than NASA’s planned expenditure, or roughly $300 million.
NASA engineers started working with SpaceX on a possible robotic Mars mission several years ago, but the partnership was only formalized in April with the signature of a no-funds-exchanged Space Act Agreement
“We saw that as a tremendous chance to get a data, from an agency standpoint, on entry, descent and landing,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s human exploration and operations mission direcorate, in a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council on Thursday. “That’s extremely important to us.”
According to Reuter, the Red Dragon spacecraft will weigh between 8 and 10 tons when it lands. The largest lander to ever reach the Martian surface was NASA’s Curiosity rover, which weighed in at about a ton when it touched down in August 2012.
NASA’s next Mars rover set for launch in 2020 will use the same combination of parachutes, retro-rocket thrusters, and the “sky crane” tethered descent system flown with Curiosity, but future vehicles will need to be significantly larger to deliver cargo and crews to the Martian surface. Those missions are too big to rely on parachutes and the sky crane system.
NASA engineers believe supersonic retro-propulsion, using thrust from large rocket engines to do the parachute’s job, is the best way to deliver hefty spacecraft to the Martian surface. The Red Dragon spacecraft’s SuperDraco thrusters, mounted in pairs on four pods outside the capsule, will ignite at supersonic speed after the ship passes through the hottest part of its entry into Mars’ atmosphere.
Landing legs should deploy just before the craft settles onto Martian soil.
“We recognize that it will be a high-risk mission,” Gerstenmaier said. “It’s also high risk to just make that launch date, but it’s worth a try.”
Mars launch opportunities occur every 26 months, and the next launch window opens in May 2018. If SpaceX misses that chance, the next Mars window comes in July and August of 2020.
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