Dragon to go to Mars in 2018

Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

The competition heats up: Though no details have yet been released, SpaceX has announced through its twitter feed that they plan to send a Dragon to Mars by 2018.

This is not really a surprise, as rumors have been circulating literally for years of Musk’s Martian goals. Nor am I doubtful they can do it. What is important about this announcement is that it suggests that they are now confident that the delays for the first Falcon Heavy launch are mostly over, and that it will happen in the fall as presently planned. With this rocket they will have the launch capability to do a test flight to Mars.


  • Rodney

    From my calculations, the red dragon/Falcon 9H has enough delta v to escape Earth and go on a hohlmann transfer to Mars but will have to do a direct entry once it gets there. There will be no dropping into orbit and then onto the surface. I was told that the dragon didn’t have a big enough heat shield (lbm/sq feet) or (kg/sq m) for a direct Mars entry. Do they plan on using inflatables?

  • Juan

    This is really exciting but I wish they would get Falcon Heavy flying before making such pronouncements. I don’t doubt they will someday be able to do it, but unless I have missed it, we haven’t even seen a Falcon Heavy erected on a test stand yet so there are still a lot of things that have to happen between now and then.

  • Steve Earle

    Assuming they are successful, will this be the first capsule, as opposed to a space probe, to go to Mars?

    Or for that matter the first to leave LEO since Apollo 17 in 1972?

  • Edward

    Lacking details, I speculate that SpaceX is thinking of a fly-by.

    Just getting to Mars has proved to be difficult, so a fly-by is the most likely option, at this point.

    The problem of getting large masses onto the surface of Mars is being investigated by a lot of scientists and engineers, especially at JPL, which wants to get heavier landers or rovers there. The atmosphere is very thin, so it is not a big help. Between entering orbit and landing on the surface, a lot of fuel is likely to be necessary to get people and their supplies onto Mars safely. Supersonic parachutes are being tested, but there are still problems, so we cannot expect hypersonic parachutes to be available any time soon, if ever.

    Like India, SpaceX will be a new entrant into Mars missions, and they will need their own learning curve to find answers to the problems of getting to Mars, getting humans into orbit (if they choose that step — I suspect they prefer something like the Mars Direct proposal), and then getting them onto the planet.

    I suspect that the 2018 mission is to be more of a proof of concept than a technology demonstration.

    A great disappointment that I have is NASA’s lack of a plan to put humans on Mars. Building a big rocket is not a plan, otherwise getting to the moon in the 1960s would have only required a Saturn V. Instead, NASA had project Mercury to figure out human performance in space. Project Gemini was designed to figure out many of the technologies and techniques needed to get onto the moon, such as orbital mechanics, rendezvous, and docking. It was Project Apollo that got us there. Today, we are missing the equivalents to Projects Mercury and Gemini, and we only dream about the equivalent to Project Apollo.

    From what I gather, SpaceX is beginning to ponder the solutions to getting Man on Mars. They may be doing a better job of it than Congress, the president, or NASA.

  • pzatchok

    “will serve as the first test flight for the Dragon 2 spacecraft the company will use. The ship will utilize the recently tested SuperDraco propulsive landing system, which SpaceX says is a key component to the ship landing safely.”

    They will not need parachutes or inflatables.
    They will land directly on the surface.

    If this flight follows all previous SpaceX test flights there will be other things included in the flight and landing test.
    The Dragon2 can carry 7 passengers or2500kg of payload back to a safe Earth landing. They might be able to carry a bit more mass for a Mars landing. More than likely double if not triple that mass.
    The Dragon2 has three emergency parachutes for an Earth landing. No need for those on Mars. So use that space and mass for either more fuel or how about a flying solar powered drone?

    Since they have all that internal room how about away to open the door and extend a ramp down to the surface to deploy a few wheeled drones? Like Curiosity.

    As for solar panels I have a nifty idea for those also. Use small squares set together like tiles. Make along ribbon of them as wide as the ramp. Then just unroll them down the ramp after it deploys.

    Almost no modifications to the Dragon2 itself so testing is not compromised much.

    The Dragon2 will also have the trunk section, with attitude thrusters and solar panels, attached to the bottom for flight to Mars. Put a some extra fuel in there and maybe(?) they can bring the trunk section into orbit and use it as a radio relay orbiter.

  • Matt

    Edward and Pzatchok, the following video answers your questions:


  • Edward


    Could you please include the link for the quote you used?


    The video gives the best information, so far, but it is more conceptual than design or planning. It suggests that a Red Dragon landing on Mars is possible. It more resembles “design by Power Point” than actual, useful design. The presentation assumes capabilities of Red Dragon that have yet to be verified. Perhaps these verifications are part of the “details to come” that the scanty twitter announcement promises, or perhaps they will not verify them prior to the mission.

    News articles that I am finding suggest that SpaceX does intend to put Dragon on the surface but are sketchy on details, which apparently will come later this year, and the articles could be mere speculation. I find nothing on the SpaceX site.

    The closest I have seen to anything tangible from the company: “A source familiar with the company’s plans said the first test flight of a Dragon capsule to Mars would demonstrate technologies needed to land large payloads on the Red Planet.” But I am not finding quotes that definitely come from yesterday or today, most are generalized quotes from the past.

    I think one of the benefits of a flight to Mars is to verify the radiation exposure within the Dragon spacecraft, giving us more data points for designing manned craft to Mars.

  • ken anthony

    They might be able to carry a bit more mass for a Mars landing.

    Earth atmosphere bleeds off more energy for larger payloads.

  • Steve Earle

    I love the part of the video where he calls diving as fast as possible towards Mars a “Gutsy Maneuver”!

    At first I thought that was crazy, but it sounds like it could work, especially if they work out how to extend the protective shock wave with lateral thrusters.

    That part was a little confusing though since a few minutes later they seemed to dismiss the shockwave drag as ineffective compared to the brute force of the super-draco thrusters…..?

  • Edward

    Steve wrote: “That part was a little confusing though since a few minutes later they seemed to dismiss the shockwave drag as ineffective compared to the brute force of the super-draco thrusters…..?”

    I’m not sure that he meant ineffective as much as less forceful. The fuel savings from using atmospheric drag could be significant, as the Martian escape velocity is around 6km/sec (thus the arrival velocity would be expected to be the same). Using the atmosphere to bleed off almost all of that velocity could be a very effective means of weight savings. I think that the major question is whether the lander can slow enough to follow the curve of the planet; if not, it will fly back into space — hopefully into an orbit in order to come around for another atmospheric deceleration.

    I think the main point is that the Super-Draco thrusters are designed to be too strong to increase the shockwave front. If SpaceX wants to use this thruster-enlarged shockwave, they probably have to install properly sized thrusters.

    This idea of using thrusters to increase the atmospheric drag is new to me, and I do not know if it is fuel efficient. It was unclear to me how much investigation went into this concept for use with the Red Dragon spacecraft, as they said their model used a thrust level of 20 times the drag level. He gave us a lesson in “supersonic retro-propulsion in thirty seconds,” but did not seem have modeled it for Red Dragon (but did have a slide prepared, as though he anticipated the question).

    The idea of “bouncing” in the atmosphere with an ablative heat shield is a little like the idea of the lifting body: to be aimed deep in the atmosphere but use lift forces to remain high enough to slow down as much as possible before finally going deeper. For Earth reentry, lifting bodies stay high in the atmosphere to avoid the need for ablative heat shields. I did not catch whether this bounce idea requires ablation.

    In theory, non-ablative heat shields should reduce turnaround time (and they seem to be lighter), but that failed in practice on the Space Shuttle, as its shield received too much damage during each mission (apparently mostly on landing). I don’t know how well it works with the Air Force’s X-37, because the two craft also spend many months on the ground between missions, though this may have nothing to do with the heat shield.

  • Steve Earle

    Thanks for the response Edward, and of course you are correct that he meant less-forceful as opposed to ineffective. And as you point out the thrusters would have to be sized properly.

    I am curious about the need for a heat shield, ablative or non, while using this method. I believe he stated that the shockwave would absorb and re-direct the majority of the heat, and that effect would be enhanced by expanding the wave using smaller side thrusters. This should make a thinner cheaper less fragile shield possible?

    As you point out he didn’t spend much time on it other than the single slide, which is too bad since the idea seems like it would be very useful.

    I wonder what SpaceX will actually have its Dragon capsule do on the first mission? Will they do a fly-by, will they place it into orbit, will they attempt a landing by one of these different methods?

  • Edward

    “the idea seems like it would be very useful.”

    It would seem that way, but no one has actually done it yet. I don’t know if that is because the idea is too new or if it is not cost/fuel/weight efficient.

    Even though a majority of the heat goes into the shock wave and does not go into the reentry body, this does not mean that there is not a lot of heat absorbed by the reentry body. At Earth’s orbital speed of 5 miles per second, there is a lot of kinetic energy in the spacecraft, as kinetic energy is a function of the square of the speed. That kinetic energy has to be dissipated somehow, and thrusters or heating are the two ways we have, right now. Even at Mars, any lander has to slow down by several miles per second before parachutes can successfully be deployed. However, it is worth looking into any designs that can reduce weight, even the weight of the heat shield.

    I, too, am eagerly awaiting the details on this first SpaceX Mars mission. I’m sure that they will want to do as much test, demonstration, science, and engineering-research as they can. It could be that part of the expected payoff is publicity — or marketing — to draw in as many customers as they can fly, before Blue Origin becomes a competitor for orbital launches.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *