SpaceX has entered into an agreement with NASA for a Dragon mission to Mars, set to take place as early as 2018. Known as “Red Dragon”, the variant of the Dragon 2 spacecraft will be launched by the Falcon Heavy rocket, ahead of a soft landing on the surface of Mars. The mission is also part of an agreement with NASA to gain further data on Mars landings.
"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," NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman wrote in a blog post.
According to Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, no astronauts will accompany Red Dragon on this first test flight. Musk said he wouldn't recommend transporting crews in Dragons beyond the moon; its internal volume is only about the size of an SUV.
"Wouldn't be fun for longer journeys," Musk explained in a tweet.
On Wednesday, SpaceX’s announcement pointed to the completion of the main phase of an agreement with NASA, likely via a Space Act Agreement (SAA), to work together on a mission to Mars.
These plans involve the Red Dragon conducting a propulsive landing on Mars, following its launch on a Falcon Heavy from SpaceX’s Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
Red Dragon would be launched aboard a mightier version of the current SpaceX Falcon rocket that may make its debut at Florida's Kennedy Space Center by year's end.
Additional details on his overall Mars plan will come, Musk promised. After successfully landing a leftover Falcon booster at sea earlier this month, he said he would elaborate on his approach to establishing a city on Mars at an aerospace meeting in Mexico in September.
"I think it's going to sound pretty crazy. So it should be at least entertaining," he told reporters.
NASA will help SpaceX with the Red Dragon mission, providing technical assistance, communications and navigation support, and perhaps a suite of science instruments to ride to Mars inside the spacecraft, according to an agreement signed between the space agency and Musk’s company.
California-based SpaceX already is using Dragons for space station supply runs, and the company could start flying Americans to the International Space Station by the end of next year.