SpaceX Working With NASA on Sending Dragon Spacecraft to Mars

Red Dragon landing on Mars (Credit: SpaceX)
Red Dragon landing on Mars (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX announced today that it would be sending a modified robotic Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018. The company has been working with NASA on key elements of the mission under a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement signed in December 2014 as part of the space agency’s Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) program.

According to the agreement

SpaceX is partnering with NASA under a Space Act Agreement (SAA) to work toward accelerating the knowledge and critical technology needed to support missions to Mars and ultimately enable humans to live on Mars. Technology development will be completed in two different areas.

Area 1: The first area will include the development of deep-space communication and navigation capabilities and Mars Entry, Descent and Landing (“EDL”) at the scale of the Red Dragon lander concept, along with potential unmanned precursor mission activities. The potential for ride share opportunities, as part of these or other missions SpaceX is undertaking will also be evaluated.

Area 2: The second area will include methane-oxygen propulsion development, propellant management, large scale in situ resource utilization systems, and human-scale Mars EDL. This area may also inform sub-scale demonstrations that could be supported by efforts associated with the first area.

The exact nature of the mission remains uncertain at this point, but a three-year NASA study indicated that SpaceX’s Red Dragon “could land approximately 2 metric tons of useful payload, or approximately twice the mass that the MSL Skycrane demonstrated with a useful volume 3 or 4 times as great.

“This combination of features led us to speculate that it might be possible to land enough mass and volume with a Red Dragon to enable a Mars Sample Return mission in which Mars Orbit Rendezvous is avoided, and the return vehicle comes directly back to Earth,” the study concluded. “This potentially lowers the risk and cost of a sample return mission. We conclude that such an Earth-Direct sample return architecture is feasible if the Earth Return Vehicle is constructed as a small spacecraft.”

In a blog post published today, NASA Deputy Administrator Dava J. Newman wrote that NASA would be receiving valuable data from the mission.

Among the many exciting things we’re doing with American businesses, we’re particularly excited about an upcoming SpaceX project that would build upon a current “no-exchange-of-funds” agreement we have with the company. 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.

Specifically, NASA is providing t6he following technical support and information to SpaceX:

  • deep space communications and telemetry
  • deep space navigation and trajectory design
  • entry, descent and landing system analysis and engineering support
  • Mars entry aerodynamic/aerothermal database development
  • general interplanetary mission and hardware consultation and advice
  • planetary protection consultation and advice.

The collaboration also includes the following milestones. (For some reason, there is no Milestone 7.)

MILESTONE PLANNED ACHIEVEMENT

Milestone 1: Kickoff Meeting

Success Criteria: Identified resources and plans for developments associated with each of the areas covered by this agreement is determined satisfactory by SpaceX Management.

November 2014

 Milestone 2: Area 1 Preliminary Progress Review

Success Criteria: Progress in Area 1 is determined satisfactory by SpaceX Management

 September 2015

 Milestone 3: Preliminary Red Dragon Mission Review

Success Criteria: Progress in mission planning is determined satisfactory by SpaceX management.

 Launch — 18 Months

Milestone 4: Detailed Red Dragon Mission Review

Success Criteria: Detailed progress in mission planning is determined satisfactory by SpaceX management.

 Launch — 9 Months
 Milestone 5: Flight Readiness Review

Success Criteria: The flight hardware/software, ground facilities (launch site and mission control), end-to-end communication systems, support personnel, and procedures are ready for the mission to the satisfaction of SpaceX management.

 Launch — 7 Days
 Milestone 6:  Entry, Descent & Landing (EDL) Readiness Review

Success Criteria: EDL flight systems and supporting communications, ground systems and personnel are ready for the EDL phase of the mission to the satisfaction of SpaceX management.

 Landing — 60 Days
 Milestone 8: Post-Mission Review

Success Criteria: Performance of flight and ground systems are assessed, any anomalies are understood, and mission data is assessed to the satisfaction of SpaceX management.

 Landing + 60 Days

The original Space Act Agreement, which was set to end on March 31, 2017, has been amended to end on March 31, 2022, to accommodate the mission.

This mission is part of SpaceX’s larger effort to colonize Mars. SpaceX Founder Elon Musk has promised to unveil details of the plan in September at the International Astronautical Federation Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico.

  • TimR

    Not the only person but I have on several occasions suggested that an early Falcon Heavy flight should be used to send a payload, even a Dragon, to Mars. SpaceX and Musk have proclaimed that they’d deliver the first humans to Mars by 2027 and now he has stated 2025. This Falcon Heavy mission is a necessary and critical first step to sending Humans to Mars by 2025. Making it to Mars by 2025 also means no ‘fourth time is a charm” or 3rd or even 2nd. Musk’s pointing to center field does mean he has to hit a series of home runs without a need for second or more attempts. So here is something substantial on his unreleased roadmap to Mars – a Dragon landed on the red planet. What he delivers in this first attempt will be equivalent to what he had initially considered as a goal for SpaceX – sending essentially a potted plant onto the surface of Mars.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Nice to see part of NASA doing their real job, instead of the CONgress dog and pony show.

    NACA

  • windbourne

    One thing I have not understood is that CONgress gutted NASA and pushed for the SLS.
    BUT, it was O that took the money from mars exploration to continue the work on private space, namely this.
    Yet, the main head of Mars exploration was upset with O for doing this and IIRC, he quit.

    So, now, O, by backing SpaceX and Musk, has made it cheap to send a number of missions to mars (and possibly other planets), and each of them with a large lander (6 tonne dragon and 2 tonne payload) and multiple satellites (5 tonnes worth ).
    If he did quit, this sounds like he made a big mistake.

  • Paul_Scutts

    Good one, Windbourne. Reminds me of that famous line uttered by Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) in the movie “Apollo 13”, “… we just decided to go”. Musk has decided to go to Mars. NASA, or part thereof, is going with him and Congress/Senate are still doing what they have always been doing since Apollo, sitting on their hands, staring at the roof and whistling “Dixie”. 🙂 Regards, Paul.

  • AstroMan

    Having briefly worked on a team that worked under JPL on Mars precision atmospheric entry, it is going to be difficult for a Dragon to land on Mars. Why?

    Even on the surface of Mars, the atmosphere is extremely thin, and that density only falls rapidly with higher altitudes. This isn’t my opinion but from having worked with MarsGRAM. If you don’t know what that term stands for, don’t stop typing your response to my comment.

    So Dragon’s parachutes, which work fine in Earth’s atmosphere, won’t be highly impactful in slowing Dragon’s entry velocity beyond that achieved in reentry and will provide a drag force only marginally greater than that of from basic form drag of the spacecraft.

    Then comes the powered descent phase so that Dragon doesn’t leave a crater on the martian surface. Here’s the key; does the total delta-V of the Dragon’s RCS exceed that needed to enable Dragon a soft landing on Mars? I don’t know. And SpaceX has never answered my queries regarding that question. If someone here does know rather than having an opinion, that would be interesting.

  • AstroMan

    I would suggest you look at the potential injection characteristic energy C3 of the Falcon Heavy. A basic FH has a smaller capacity for beyond-earth payloads than that of a an Atlas 5 (501). That will remain the case until (if?) SpaceX develops a second-stage to boost the FH payload out of LEO.

  • AstroMan

    Who wrote the first COTS checks? Hint: wasn’t O–he was still the Jr. Senator from Illinois. Penultimate hint: his nickname is “Doc”. And who was Doc’s boss? Last hint: his first name is Mike.

  • Linsey Young

    They’re not using the reaction control system for the landing delta-V. They’re using the super draco abort/landing thrusters.

  • TimR

    Well it has a second stage but not one with the performance needed for large payloads. Yes they need a higher performance 2nd. So this Dragon capsule to Mars in 2018 will have to expend all three cores. Doing so, the two strapped on cores could get the Heavy and the Dragon to LEO, leaving considerable fuel in the main 1st stage core. They could launch directly into an escape trajectory. That remaining core plus the upper stage might be enough to send the Dragon to Mars with a modest payload inside. For some comment, I considered a cargo Dragon to Mars and I found that the Heavy could barely do it. Stripped down Dragon with a small complement of instruments. Additionally, use aerobraking to achieve orbit. With the Dragon 2 with fuel for a soft landing, I suspect you first aerobrake to orbit. That cuts about 1 km/sec from the entry speed. But no, I think the clincher will be delivering an upper stage to LEO using a falcon 9. Deliver the Dragon and payload to LEO with Heavy. Then mating the two in LEO. To reach the Martian surface, they’ll use both a 9 and a Heavy.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I’m not understanding why FH with a standard Falcon upper stage might be thought insufficient for the job, let alone the need for multiple launches to LEO. For quite some time SpaceX have quoted that Falcon Heavy could throw 13 tonnes to Mars. That’s in the propellent cross-feed with v1.1 cores configuration. Even without cross-feed, full-thrust v1.2 cores should be able to exceed that 13 tonne figure. A Dragon 2 weighs in at about 6.5 tonnes, plus any on-board payload.

    There is some question in my mind about course correction and whether the rcs thrusters would be up to the job.

  • Toby Lin

    So, it’s hard to get an exact value for Dragon 2 delta-V, but amateur estiamtes put it somewhere around 450m/s (https://www.reddit.com/r/spacex/comments/26yrd1/how_much_fuel_does_a_superdraco_burn_how_long_can/chvwsmk)

    Delta V from low Mars orbit to Mars surface is ~3,800m/s

    That means it will have to shed at least 3,400m/s using the atmosphere as a brake, right?

  • windbourne

    Totally agree.
    But that was not about the conversation.

  • Jeff2Space

    If you want numbers, have a look at this.
    ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20140005555.pdf

  • Jeff2Space

    Since Dragon has significant hypersonic lift (due to its shape), NASA researchers have determined that is should be possible (see my post above with a link to the technical paper).

  • ReSpaceAge

    The importance of this mission is only now starting to sink in.

    What is really happening here. Elon Musk s redefining BEO exploration.

    This is not a mission where NASA controls the money and the launch company is the contractor.

    This is not even a case where NASA government is the payload customer.

    This is a case where a company is doing “exploration” on another planet and NASA is forced to go along and help, acting as they did as NACA for the airplane industry.

    Even if this first attempt ends in a crash, this is an amazing feat.

    The BEO exploration model is about to change forever! I’m thrilled 🙂

    We really will have a human mission to Mars in the next decade or two!

    Obviously SpaceX will be in a position to launch a Mars mission ever window!

    And NASA really is on a journey to Mars the proper way!

    Let’s hope CONgress and Boeing don’t find a way to screw it up.

    Seems to me SpaceX will develop their own deep space network to not be dependent as soon as possible.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Its the normal way with government agencies. They often have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future, than they will claim it was their idea all along.

    I was watching the episode from the Smithsonian’s Frontiers of Flight series on jet airliners. In it a Boeing VP tells how the USAF brass had to have its face rubbed in the fact they needed jet tankers for jet bombers. Tankers were freighters and freighter had to have propellers. Period.

    He noted that if it wasn’t for General LeMay demanding it after seeing how effective the Dash-80 demo was in tanker tests the USAF would have never bought the KC-135. Even after the brass reluctantly admitted that jet tankers might work, they only bought 13 KC-135s, giving the main contract to Lockheed to develop a new jet tanker (its called spite). But eventually common sense won out and the Lockheed tanker was never built. Instead the USAF bought hundreds of KC-135s, many of which are still in service today.

  • TimR

    The two figures I’ve seen in the past day are 10 tonnes to Mars and 6.5 tonnes for a Dragon 2. However, the Dragon 2 will surely weigh in closer to the max lift capability to Mars considering the intent to take scientific and engineering payloads and also a system for receiving a sample, storing it in a small capsule atop a small sample-return rocket delivered within the Dragon. Such a sample-return system must reach Mars orbit, escape and then have the propulsion and/or aerobraking capability to return to an Earth orbit! Also, total mass projections for mission concepts commonly are under-estimated and inflate as engineering problems arise and are solved. Their greatest design requirement is simply that they must return material from the surface. Whether a gram or a kilogram, it will force considerable design requirements and constraints. Also, another requirement seems to be that only one Dragon 2 is delivered to the surface. If just one, that means that everything required must fit within the volume of that Dragon. If the mass margins are tight, they will be at high risk of delaying launch to 2020 if not later in order to trim mass from subsystems across the board. If however, they choose to be constrained by just the volume, then they might consider delivering a transfer stage (escape) separately via a F-9, thus permitting the Heavy to launch the Dragon 2 with everything necessary for Mars landing, sample reception, escape and return to Earth orbit. SpaceX may realize they need their own relay/survey orbiter and choosing to use, say, a Falcon 9 to place a transfer stage in LEO could afford the opportunity to send a small orbiter along with the Dragon atop the Heavy.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    The SpaceX website is still stating 13,200 kg to Mars for the FH, and I don’t see any reason to doubt that Falcon Heavy could easily manage to throw a Dragon 2, trunk and payload to Mars with significant margin to spare. As for sample return, SpaceX has not mentioned it. It was the basis of a previous, non-SpaceX, study, but I don’t see that it would be likely for this particular mission. As far as we know the almost exclusive purpose of this mission is to test out concepts of entry-descent-landing on Mars – and any additional science would be a bonus. It also seems as though NASA are most interested in EDL data.

  • AstroMan

    Jeff,

    After reading that paper, can you tell me the state vector, specifically the velocity portion, at the point when the Draco’s are fired as part of a SRP, which is needed to determine the total delta-V the thrusters need to impart to accomplish a successful (soft) landing, and the burn-time, ergo fuel, needed to accomplish that goal? Or whether the Dragon has enough fuel to accomplish that?

    I’ll leave it at that.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Don’t they add tanks to make sure they have enough fuel?
    Isn’t this a test flight to determine how much fuel would be needed in a larger lander?

  • AstroMan

    Most people who have dealt with Mars reentry would suspect that additional tankage would be necessary.

    At the point of beginning its powered descent, Dragon will have a dry mass of about 6mT, or about half of the mass of the non-extended mission LM, and will be traveling at supersonic velocities. Frankly, it might as well be landing on the Moon for the minuscule amount of drag Dragon will induce in the very thin Martian atmosphere.

    If the FH can indeed send 10mT on a Mars trajectory, between removing unneeded items, eg the parachutes, ECLSS, couches, that would leave about 4mT for experimental instruments and fuel.

  • AstroMan

    Thanks. Finally, some real numbers.

    I’m pleasantly surprised that this looks doable. If the Dragon 2 can survive the 1 year transit time, this will be a spectacular achievement.

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