NASA is partnering up with SpaceX to send an unmanned spaceship to Mars. It's a deal that should pay off well for the federal space agency.
NASA and SpaceX are going to be working together to send SpaceX's unmanned spacecraft, the Red Dragon, to Mars in 2018. The Red Dragon will be a souped up version of SpaceX's Dragon capsule designed to enter the Martian atmosphere and then use its on-board engines to land softly on the planet's surface.
The original deal, announced in April by NASA and SpaceX, was cobbled together out of a revised existing unfunded Space Act Agreement to focus on a planned mission to send an unmanned craft to Mars in 2018. Working from this agreement, NASA will provide technical support for the Red Dragon's launch, travels and landing. In exchange SpaceX will give NASA data from the Red Dragon's entry, descent and landing to help NASA plan its own Mars mission slated for the 2030s, according to Space News.
For NASA, this is another step toward the private industry partnerships they've been pushing to replace space exploration efforts that were funded by the federal government until recently. This is SpaceX's first unmanned mission, but it won't be the last, according to SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
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NASA officials are hoping to have a few payloads attached to SpaceX's Red Dragon when the spacecraft lands on Mars. Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator for space technology, recently stated his office has a "wish list" of things they'd like to send along to be tested, including an experiment to create methane which could then be made into rocket fuel. NASA scientists also want to test out a method of pulling water out of the Martian soil to create drinking water, hydrogen and oxygen.
However, with just about 24 months before the launch window opens, Jurczyk and the other NASA scientists realize they probably don't have enough time to get any of this technology tested and vetted enough to be able to put it on the first Red Dragon mission, he says. (Plus, it's arguably not the best idea to put a whole bunch of expensive equipment on someone else's spacecraft during a test run.)
There will be other chances though. The Red Dragon is the first in a series of planned unmanned missions to Mars. Musk is determined to get people to Mars through private space industry and because of their agreement NASA is going along for the ride. Last Friday, Musk told the Washington Post SpaceX will be sending crafts to Mars regularly every two years starting in 2018 because he wants to establish definite cargo routes to the planet. "You can count on it. It’s going to happen every 26 months. Like a train leaving the station," Musk stated.
Meanwhile, NASA isn't planning to send people to Mars until the 2030s, but they'll get all kinds of helpful data on how to do it, a sensible move for a federal space agency that's always on a tight budget.