Private spaceflight company SpaceX yesterday announced an ambitious plan to send a large unmanned probe to Mars.
The mission, called Red Dragon, would arrive in Martian orbit in late 2018, and then land to conduct scientific research on the planet’s surface.
Should it be successful, this mission would be not only the first privately funded mission to Mars, but also the largest payload every taken to the planet to-date.
In order to send the Red Dragon mission to Mars, a modified Dragon 2 capsule (designed for manned flights to the ISS) will be launched atop Space X’s new Falcon Heavy rocket.
“Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system. Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Twitter.
While the mission will be completely privately-funded, Nasa has itself announced that it has signed an agreement with SpaceX to provide technical and infrastructure support for the mission.
“In exchange for Martian entry, descent, and landing data from SpaceX, Nasa will offer technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars,” said Nasa deputy Administrator Dava Newman.
Most critically this will involve giving SpaceX access to the Deep Space Network, enabling faster communication and data links with the Red Dragon spacecraft.
While SpaceX has not announced an exact launch date for this mission, they would need to launch over a short period in the first half of 2018 in order to make use of optimal orbital alignments. Should this launch window be missed, the company would likely have to wait until 2020 before travelling to Mars.
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
ULA launch monopoly broken
Another major announcement made by SpaceX yesterday was the winning of its first ever contract to launch a US military satellite.
This contract, worth $82.7m, entails the launch of a GPS 3 satellite for the US Air Force in May 2018.
Despite winning this contract with very little competition, the company’s bid was reportedly significantly lower than that of its competitor ULA.
ULA, a consortium made up of Boeing and Lockheed Martin has held a long-running monopoly on US military space launches. Through breaking this monopoly SpaceX is entering a new sector where its highly-competitive reusable rockets could accumulate hundreds of millions of dollars worth of yearly contracts.