SpaceX Red Dragon makes use of Supersonic Retro-Propulsion (SRP) to land on Mars.
Credit: SpaceX

As 2020 draws closer, look for an armada of international spacecraft launching that have Mars in their respective target sights – including a prospective takeoff of Elon Musk’s SpaceX uncrewed Red Dragon capsule.

Although details of the SpaceX Red Dragon thrust and thirst for Mars is spotty, one landing site is known to be under consideration.

A candidate locale is a lobe of the possibly ice-rich smooth unit in Mars’ Arcadia Region.

Candidate Red Dragon landing spot – Arcadia Planitia, a smooth plain on Mars that appears to have large quantities of ice near the surface.
Credit: University of Arizona/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE).


Red planet plans

Repeatedly this year, SpaceX front man Paul Wooster has provided some sketchy but captivating Red Planet plans by Musk’s private company.

For example, a few months ago Wooster told a Mars-hungry science audience that an unpiloted SpaceX Red Dragon flight to Mars, able to deliver roughly one ton of useful payload, is being considered for 2020. Indeed, other Red Dragons could follow every two years or so, he said, when Earth-Mars alignments are ripe for the interplanetary crossing.

Rumors have it, but far from confirmed is that SpaceX might be readying two Red Dragons for a Mars 2020-2021 trek. Insiders suggest not.

SpaceX’s Elon Musk has a visionary space agenda for Mars.
Credit: Rob Varnas

Express male/female

SpaceX’s Wooster is a lead in the technical development of SpaceX’s Mars architecture and vehicles, including both Red Dragon and human-scale systems. He is also the Manager of Spacecraft Guidance Navigation and Control at SpaceX.

All the pioneering SpaceX work is part of Elon Musk’s express mail thoughts of hurling males and females to colonize the Red Planet.

“First and foremost is to learn how to land large payloads on Mars,” Wooster explains. Experiments carried onboard Red Dragon robotic landers, for instance, are expected to evaluate on-the-spot propellant production. Made-on-Mars oxygen, water and fuel can be processed from icy reserves. Toss in use of the carbon dioxide–rich Martian atmosphere for useful products.

Credit: SpaceX

Plop down target

SpaceX has been busily working with NASA and non-NASA landing site experts to plot and pick locales for plopping down a SpaceX Red Dragon.

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Wooster says that choosing a site is driven by the quantity of water the firm is looking for…and that’s thousands of tons.

One such Red Dragon touchdown place that is “quite promising” Wooster says is Arcadia Planitia, a smooth plain on Mars that appears to have large quantities of ice near the surface.

 Ice is nice

Already tapped by SpaceX is the super-sleuth of all Mars orbiting cameras – NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE).

HiRise has been used to chart the possible SpaceX Dragon landing site.

“We are following the procedures used for other landing sites” via the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Alfred McEwen told Inside Outer Space.

McEwen is the principal investigator for HiRise at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “But this is a candidate site…they haven’t chosen the actual landing site,” he adds.

Ice is nice. That’s the view from Marsologist Chris McKay at NASA’s Ames Research Center. While not expert about Arcadia Planitia, “I can say that low latitude sites with ice that is near that surface will be prime landing site for human exploration. The alternative is go get the water from hydrated minerals like sulfates,” he told Inside Outer Space.

One scientific scenario – could a SpaceX Red Dragon haul back to Earth Mars samples?
Credit: NASA/Ames


Helping hand

Whatever the landing target is for a SpaceX Red Dragon prime, NASA is offering a helping hand, in multiple ways.

NASA is slated to support SpaceX’s 2020 Red Dragon mission with tracking by the Deep Space Network (DSN) throughout the mission, explains Chad Edwards, Manager, Mars Relay Network Office, Chief Technologist, Mars Exploration Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

In addition, Edwards points out, NASA’s relay-equipped orbiters (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and Odyssey) will provide high-rate, energy-efficient relay communications for Red Dragon once at Mars, including acquisition of telemetry and tracking data during the critical period of entry, descent, and landing.

Relay support

NASA is particularly interested in Red Dragon’s footed-feel atop Mars terrain that would demonstrate the successful use of Supersonic Retro-Propulsion for the first time at Mars. The DSN would support telemetry and command services throughout the lander’s surface mission, Edwards adds.

SpaceX Red Dragon on Mars.
Credit: SpaceX

“This DSN and Mars relay support to Red Dragon will be provided during a particularly busy period,” Edwards notes, with NASA, the European Space Agency, the Indian Space Research Organization, and the United Arab Emirates ready to hurl hardware Marsward in that same time period. All that Mars machinery is slated to arrive in early 2021.

Also, add in up to nine other missions, from NASA, ESA, and ISRO, already operating at Mars, Edwards explains. “NASA is currently conducting detailed loading studies to assess our ability to meet the telecommunication and tracking needs of all these missions during this period,” he said.

X marks the spot: complex issues

SpaceX getting to Mars is not fraught without perplexing questions.

For instance, won’t supersonic retro propulsion blow away the shallow top soil (50 centimeters depth on average) and expose the ground ice around the lander?

Furthermore, as that ground ice is potentially inhabited and grows at high obliquity, is there a serious problem with planetary protection?

Question: Can SpaceX ignore the planetary protection guidelines?

Additionally, rumors have it that SpaceX is likely to cancel or delay its Mars mission from 2020.

According to Inside Outer Space sources, there is a simple reason:

SpaceX is under pressure from NASA to maintain (or stop slipping) the Commercial Crew Development Vehicle (CCDV) schedule. NASA is extremely anxious to extract itself from the Russian Soyuz dependence. Insiders say that SpaceX has a huge amount of revenue at stake and are in “a precarious cash flow position,” a source said.

One recent decision, apparently, is to descope the propulsive landing on solid ground for the Dragon 2. At least initially, they decided to stick with the proven Dragon 1 parachute landing in water for the initial crew flights. That saves about 6 months of test schedule, Inside Outer Space was advised.

Meanwhile, colonizing Mars looms large on the SpaceX horizon.

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