An Out-Of-This-World Partnership
If you are a leading space exploration institution, it seems that your current target is Mars. NASA wants to get there, but it's going to take a lot of work. Which is why it sought out a partner. SpaceX, Elon Musk's rocket company, has struck a deal with NASA, who has pledged to support SpaceX in preparing and executing its 2018 unmanned mission to Mars.
SpaceX is looking to launch the Red Dragon Mars mission by 2018, one that will see testing of important systems needed for a manned Mars mission. Elon Musk has been cagey with details, but is expected to say more during a global space conference in Mexico in September.
In the deal, SpaceX will be able to use NASA's Deep Space Network to communicate and guide its spacecraft. Interplanetary navigation experts at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be the ones plotting the course of the craft.
Other than that, NASA will be helping SpaceX determine the best landing sites for the craft, guide and analyze the Red Dragon during entry, and evaluate the different systems in the craft. Included in the deal is certifying the planetary protection standards of Red Dragon.
For its trouble, NASA will mainly be getting data. The agency is interested in the supersonic retro-propulsion Red Dragon will be using for entry into Mars. This system is billed as one of the two most important technologies for a manned Mars mission; the other is precision landing.
Supersonic retro-propulsion basically involves using thrust from large rocket engines to do a parachute’s job. This is said to be key for larger payloads and vehicles if they want to enter Mars' atmosphere. This is the same technology that has allowed the Falcon 9 rocket to land successfully. Of particular interest is how this system performs in the different dynamics of Martian atmosphere.
If all goes successfully, the next step will be getting humans to the Red Planet.