Rocketing to Mars

Getting people to Mars is going to require quite a big rocket, a lot of money and plenty of time, not to mention a few hardy volunteers, but despite the challenges there’s a number of realistic players all voicing their intentions to get to Mars. 2018 looks like it’s going to be the year of some big advancements on getting us closer to Mars with new rockets getting tested.

SpaceX has unveiled its heavy lift rocket that will be flight tested early in 2018. It’s basically three Falcon 9s, two as boosters and one adapted to be the core stage. Stage one is 27 engines, 9 in each of the boosters and the core stage. The engines are SpaceX’s Merlin 1D engines. These engines are the mainstay of SpaceX’s operations with over 400 produced and having an excellent operational record. The combined thrust of all 27 engines will be around 5,130,000 pounds of thrust at sea level, 1/3 of which is shown blasting off in this image from SpaceXs website of a Falcon 9 at launch:

The huge heavy lift variant will offer the highest payload of any rocket on the market with the ability to lift, according to SpaceX, 63,800 kg to Low Earth Orbit. But this is not SpaceX’s ultimate aim as the rocket was mainly designed with Mars in mind, this was what was behind Elon Musk’s comments that he was going to propel his cherry red Tesla in the direction of Mars in the first launch of the heavy lift rocket. Musk tweeted images of the new rocket earlier in the week that was being assembled at Cape Canaveral, including this shot (and the opening image on the cover of this story).

SpaceX is now a juggernaut in the space industry with full order books and numerous successful missions, including the Dragon resupply contract to the ISS. All of this is giving SpaceX valuable experience and investment opportunities to build bigger and more sophisticated equipment. With the heavy lift rocket they will be in a position to dominate the heavy lift sector and further increase their stake in the global launch market.

By this wasn’t the only action relating to the “how do we get to Mars” question. China is on a long march to get to Mars and has made its intentions known and plans to launch a mission to go there in 2020 with a rover and even a goal of returning to Earth with a bit of Mars, which is a truely ambitious undertaking. In order to get ready to go to Mars they have also gone full steam ahead with plans to put a rover on the far side of the Moon, this is following the successful landing of a rover in 2013 on the near side. Add to the mix Donald Trump’s signing of the Space Directive a few weeks ago and the race to Mars is shaping up to have three main contenders, with SpaceX looking like it is in front at the moment. One can’t help but notice the reinvigorated US stance on space in response to China’s ever more ambitious plans for Mars. Nothing like a bit of competition to get us humans fired up and achieving things.

Next year is going to be a real test for all the players hoping to get to Mars with the Falcon Heavy and the SLS all scheduled for major tests. Watch this space as it’s going to get interesting.