SpaceX and NASA To Collaborate on Red Dragon

California-based company Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, is working with NASA to get to Mars on a project called “Red Dragon.”

Space Exploration Technologies

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the man also responsible for Tesla Motors and PayPal. The company develops technologies from cargo capsules to high-powered rockets that are then contracted out by clients including NASA, the U.S. military, and various non-governmental and private sector entities.

Currently, SpaceX holds a hard-fought $1.6 billion contract with NASA for 12 resupply flights to the International Space Station. It turns out even with Musk’s practiced business savvy, there’s a pretty steep learning curve to rocket science. But after years of trying, SpaceX eventually succeeded in demonstrating its ability to get cargo into and out of orbit to NASA’s satisfaction. That’s a pretty marketable achievement.

The most significant technologies developed by SpaceX thus far are its Dragon cargo capsule, “which has already flown six resupply missions to the International Space Station for NASA,” and its Falcon rocket models, the first privately built and liquid-fueled rocket boosters to make it to orbit. Both the Dragon capsule and the Falcon Heavy rocket are integral to project Red Dragon.

Project Red Dragon

The Red Dragon project is currently an unapproved concept, but an extremely promising one. Its aim would be to pick up Mars samples, collected by the next NASA rover scheduled to launch in 2020, and bring them back to Earth for analysis.

Interest in Mars surface samples has risen steadily since the discovery of further evidence suggesting a habitable environment on the Red Planet, such as the presence of liquid water. The kind of analysis that would offer the most information about the Mars environment can really only be conducted by human scientists in well-developed labs on Earth, rather than by a robotic rover analyzing data on site and then transmitting it back to Earth. For that reason, the U.S. National Research Council named the return of Mars surface samples to Earth as NASA’s highest-priority budget item for the coming years.

Logistically, the Red Dragon mission would use the Falcon Heavy rocket to launch a “Red Dragon” modified version of the ISS Dragon cargo capsule into space towards Mars. The Red Dragon model would include a robotic arm for grabbing the samples, as well as extra fuel and vehicles for Mars Ascent and Earth Return. Red Dragon could launch by 2022.

Space Exploration and the Private Sector

SpaceX hopes to economize the considerable costs of planetary science technologies, a goal that has informed their production and contracting models from the start. If Red Dragon gets the green light, it could further solidify the place of private firms in exploration of the final frontier, in addition to bringing home exciting information about humankind’s future with the Red Planet.