SpaceX plans to perform its first Red Dragon landing on Mars by 2018 – but it won't be carrying any of NASA's science instruments. Although NASA wants to see Elon Musk's plans to conquer the Red Planet succeed, NASA would rather make sure SpaceX can pull them off first. If for any reason the mission fails, NASA doesn't want millions of dollars of their equipment going down with the Dragon.
"I can't wait for it to be successful, because it opens up our opportunities to deliver important science instruments into the Mars environment," said Jim Green, NASA's Planetary Science Division head, speaking at the American Geophysical Union's (AGU) annual fall meeting. And until this happens, he is keeping his fingers crossed.
"Landing on Mars is hard. I want to wait this one out," Green said.
SpaceX isn't rushing things by targeting a 2018 landing. It's a matter of opportunity, aiming for a once-every-26-months chance when Earth and Mars align favorably. SpaceX wants to take every launch opportunity that would present itself in the future, hopefully beginning in 2018.
And, as SpaceX very well knows by now, missions as crucial as landing on Mars require ample time to go over every single relevant detail. Researching and studying the steps is critical.
According to Plan
For its part, SpaceX has been taking all the necessary preparations and precautions to ensure the critical technologies are prepared for the Mars missions. Perhaps the most important tech that will be key for a successful landing is the Dragon capsule's onboard SuperDraco thrusters, which are needed to perform what SpaceX calls "supersonic retropropulsion".
NASA is providing technical support to the first Red Dragon mission in a number of areas, via an unfunded Space Act Agreement. The space agency will get something out of the deal as well: access to most of the data gathered during Dragon's landing on Mars.
Supposedly, the Dragon will force its way through the Martian atmosphere traveling far faster than the speed of sound. The SuperDraco thrusters — not parachutes — would then act as a counter force to slow the capsule down for a manageable thud on the Red Planet's surface This strategy has never been executed before, and NASA is all too keen on seeing it succeed.
The Red Dragon is just the first leg of Musk's plan for Mars. After landing missions safely, the next step will be to fly in its Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), and perform a similar landing with a heavier spacecraft that actually has people aboard it.