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.
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 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.
Milestone 2: Area 1 Preliminary Progress Review
Success Criteria: Progress in Area 1 is determined satisfactory by SpaceX Management
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.