SpaceX is going to Mars!

By Benjamin Vermette

 

SpaceX is going to Mars!

“A million humans could live on Mars by the 2060s.”

That’s insane and it probably won’t happen, some say. What they don’t know is that Elon Musk is the one who said it, and we all know how ambitiously crazy he is. Before detailing and analyzing his plan, let me tell you how I admire his motivation to do such a thing. Musk wants to make humans “an interplanetary species” — that’s it. Considering it’s a very risky mission, commercially speaking, the least we can say is that this successful visionary is pursuing a common goal for all of us, and whether he succeeds in reaching it or not, we all owe him, at a minimum, some regard.

 

“It’s probably anywhere from 40 to 100 years to fully achieve a self-sustaining civilization on Mars.” – Elon Musk

 

It’s pretty – dare I say crazy? – to even suggest Elon Musk is able to put 1,000,000 humans on Mars 40 years from now by launching 1,000 rockets sheltering 100 people each. However – and this is what I remind myself every time I think about his goal – the world said the same thing about Musk’s ambitions to create SpaceX in the first place, and the same happened subsequently when he said he was to vertically land a rocket on a barge. One rational conclusion we may come to, based on past experience, is: Take this man seriously.

 

Elon Musk unveils SpaceX’s future Mars vehicle and discusses the long-term technical challenges that need to be solved to support the creation of a permanent, self-sustaining human presence on Mars. The presentation focuses on potential architectures for sustaining humans on the Red Planet that industry, government and the scientific community can collaborate on in the years ahead.

 

At the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Mexico on September 27, Musk exposed for the first time a proposal to colonize Mars. Briefly, it goes like this: The rocket — the biggest and most powerful model ever made — would launch from Earth with 100 humans (or Martians if you prefer). The booster then releases the habitable module (or spaceship) near Earth’s orbit and comes back for a vertical landing on Earth. (The booster is the bottom part of the whole structure — it carries nothing but engines and fuel; the habitable module is the upper part, carrying humans, cargo and engines of its own.)

But the booster’s job isn’t over! Back on Earth, it is attached to a fuel tank. Next, the booster would launch the tank into orbit for it to refuel the spaceship, thus providing the necessary fuel for a 60-million-kilometre trip. After doing this a couple times, the habitable module — still with 100 humans if everything went as planned — would be fuelled and ready to leave for a trip in the unknown, as the booster would fall back to Earth for the last time.

The Earth–Mars trip in itself should last a bit more than seven months. Imagine 80 days in a confined space, flying through the darkness with people you barely know, living with the thought that you may never come back. A priori, it may not be the most pleasant thing — except for the view, because the view from the module would — will — be awe-inspiring. But SpaceX has a solution to customize the spaceship in such way as to render boringness impossible. There will be reading polls, places to watch a movie, and even a restaurant. However, if you like to have a drink on the weekend, the trip might present a disadvantage. Although Musk mentioned nothing about it, he did receive a lot of advice from human-relations experts saying there should be no drugs nor alcohol on the trip. Still worth it, remember: You’re going to Mars!

 

About 1000 Viking Orbiter red- and violet-filter images have been processed to provide global color coverage of Mars at a scale of 1 km/pixel. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

About 1000 Viking Orbiter red- and violet-filter images have been processed to provide global color coverage of Mars at a scale of 1 km/pixel. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

Once arriving at Mars, the spaceship will lose a large amount of its speed thanks to the drag that will be generated as it goes through the planet’s atmosphere. Note that no parachutes will be used to slow down the spaceship: deploying parachutes at that speed may not be a good idea (as they would simply disintegrate). Now that the spaceship is considerably slowed down, it will land on the red planet’s surface — vertically, of course — and open its hatch to let all hundred humans walk out so they can get the cargo out to install the material necessary for Martin colonization.

About one hundred humans are now installed on Mars, doing what they have been instructed to. But what about the spaceship that brought them there? In order to make the spaceship fully reusable, SpaceX thought they could make fuel on Mars so the spaceship could be sent back to Earth and eventually be reused by another crew of a hundred.

Yes, you read correctly: They could make fuel on Mars. The spaceship is powered — just like the booster — by the currently-in-development Raptor engines. These engines are much more powerful than the Merlin engines SpaceX currently uses on its Falcon 9 rocket, in part because cold liquid methane is used as fuel. Methane is made of hydrogen and carbon, and you can find both on Mars! Carbon is in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, and hydrogen is there in the form of ice. Through methods far beyond the reach of this article, you can make methane using these two substances.

Of course, to do all this, you need one heck of a booster! In fact, you need at least the biggest and most powerful rocket ever made. SpaceX calls it the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). It will be 122 metres tall and weighing at launch 10,500 tons. That’s really heavy! For comparison, the Saturn V, the rocket that carried men to the moon, weighed less than 4,000 tons at lift-off.

 

A video of the Saturn V launching. The expendable rocket system was used 13 times by NASA between 1966 and 1973, primarily on the Apollo missions to the Moon. The proposed Raptor engines would be 3.5 times more powerful than the Saturn V.

 

For the ITS to actually lift, it will need to provide 13,000 tons of thrust, hence the required 42 Raptor engines. In total, ITS will be 3.5 times more powerful than the Saturn V. It goes without saying that the ITS will be super expensive: a single one may be worth almost $700-million just to manufacture. Plus, you need money to launch it. And you probably want at least a couple of modules, especially considering SpaceX’s ambitions.

This is why Musk is currently looking at alternative sources of funding, such as NASA or other private companies. He is even paying a part of the project out of his own pocket: “I really don’t have any other motivation for personally accumulating assets, except to be able to make the biggest contribution I can to making life multi-planetary,” he said.

As for the cost per person — that’s if you want to be onboard one of SpaceX’s firsts flights to Mars — it’s about the cost of “an average American household,” he said. So, we’re talking between $200,000 and $300,000 CAD per person. However, don’t let the price take your dream away: Musk said he’s constantly working on reducing the cost in order to render it accessible to everyone.

Let’s recap. SpaceX wants to colonize Mars. To do this, they will need to build the biggest rocket ever made, log a series of vertical landings in a row, take care of a spaceship carrying one hundred people, deal with outer-space radiation, make fuel on Mars, ration resources, and find a ton of money.

That’s no big deal for Elon Musk and SpaceX’s engineers. In fact, they are planning to launch ITS for the first time in late 2024. I think that by hard work and dedication, SpaceX will be able to reach such a goal. And this is what Musk has been doing: he’s been working fulltime on the project since … Wait. He’s not working fulltime on it, right? No, he is not. On October 28, he released Tesla’s newest product: a solar roof. That means he is working on several world-changing projects all at once!

Making cleaner energy and contributing in making humans multi-planetary. Not bad.

 

Other organizations, such as NASA and Boeing, are proposing on-orbit assembly of a Mars craft using multiple super-heavy lift launch vehicles. However, SpaceX’s system will require Earth-orbit rendezvous for the refueling of the second stage spaceship. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Other organizations, such as NASA and Boeing, are proposing on-orbit assembly of a Mars craft using multiple super-heavy lift launch vehicles. However, SpaceX’s system will require Earth-orbit rendezvous for the refueling of the second stage spaceship. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider