6 questions answered about Elon Musk’s plan to get us to Mars

28 Sep 2016

Still from 'SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System'. Image: SpaceX/YouTube

SpaceX founder Elon Musk isn’t playing games when it comes to getting humanity to Mars, and now he has revealed his plan to get us there by 2022.

With billions in personal wealth and a company that is securing contracts to bring massive payloads into space, Elon Musk is now ramping up his efforts to send people to Mars not in a few decades, but in a few years.

Having revealed earlier this year that the target date of this first human landing on Mars was 2024, things have changed drastically as of last night, following a major SpaceX briefing that culminated in a closer target of 2022.

But there was so much more to this announcement than just proposals and aspirations, as Musk revealed exactly how he plans to do it.

What will take us there?

If SpaceX does become the first organisation to send humans to Mars, it will be aboard its newly unveiled Interplanetary Transport System (ITS).

Just by looking at the scale of the craft and its rocket, it’s obvious that this will be an enormous spacecraft compared to its predecessors.

In fact, by measuring 122m high when standing vertically, the ITS will become the largest spacecraft ever assembled; surpassing NASA’s legendary Saturn V rocket that took Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969.

To get such a behemoth off the ground will require enormous amounts of propulsion, which is why the ITS will be fitted with 42 of SpaceX’s new Raptor engines. They will be able to lift three times that of the Saturn V.

As a comparison, the current Falcon 9 rocket uses nine smaller Merlin engines.

How does SpaceX plan on getting it into space?

All of the rocket landings achieved by SpaceX over the past year are much more than a simple show of technological achievement, and will be integral to the crewed Mars missions.

With the passengers aboard the ITS, the craft will take off into Earth’s orbit with minimal fuel.

Once the ITS is there, the rocket system will disengage and begin its return to the same landing pad it took off from.

System architecture

How the ITS system will work. Image: SpaceX

It will then take on the second pod – a tanker full of fuel – where it will be launched once again to rendezvous with the ITS.

Once the two pods are attached, the ITS can begin its long journey to Earth’s nearest neighbour.

This would be an entirely new undertaking as far as space travel goes, reducing the mass needed to depart Earth by a factor of five, while also significantly reducing cost.

What will it be like for the passengers?

When fully operational – to the goal set out by SpaceX – the ITS will be able to transport over 100 passengers to Mars during a single trip, or even as many as 200, according to Musk.

Given that it will take months of travel through the vastness of space, Musk spoke during the presentation on the necessity to keep these passengers happy and entertained.

So, with that in mind, SpaceX plans to make the ITS a cruise liner of the cosmos by including some facilities like cinemas, restaurants and lecture halls in a relatively spacious environment.

“It’ll be, like, really fun to go,” Musk said. “You’ll have a great time.”

Unlike a cruise liner however, the ITS will have a limited time frame from which to launch, in order to match up with our two planets’ closest proximity that occurs every 28 months.

When this happens, Musk said, fleets of up to 1,000 craft will partake in a humanoid invasion of the planet, ensuring that no one is likely to feel lonely on the Red Planet.

Is it a one-way mission?

Unlike the Mars One mission that tried to encourage a small band of scientists to go on a one-way mission to the planet for the sake of a reality TV show, the ITS will have the capability to return people back to Earth.

It won’t be an easy task by any means. In order for SpaceX to achieve this, it will need infrastructure in place to facilitate the production of fuel to get it off the surface and on its way.

The secret to achieving lies in the fuel that SpaceX will use for the Raptor engines: a methane and oxygen mixture that can be produced using the planet’s vast quantities of carbon dioxide in its air and soil.

This will be produced by solar-powered factories purpose-built on the planet by the first robots and crews.

Almost reminiscent of a stage coach in the Wild West, Musk said: “We need the spaceship back, so it’s coming. You can jump on board or not.”

Surely this will cost a fortune?

It is estimated that if we are to send a person to Mars using today’s methods, it would cost somewhere in the region of $10bn. However, Musk thinks SpaceX can get it down to $200,000 in the beginning.

By using multi-stage rockets and cutting down the costs needed to build new boosters over and over again, the accumulated costs will eventually benefit the passengers, too.

If it all goes well and the technology gets cheaper over time, this price could fall to below $100,000, making it feasible for at least for a small percentage of the population.

Raptor firing

The Raptor engine firing. Image: SpaceX

So it isn’t just a pipe dream?

SpaceX is about to shift gears drastically in the next two years. It aims to grow from a company that is only partially developing the ITS, into a company whose main focus will be on developing it at a cost of around $300m annually.

In the next few years, the SpaceX will keep testing its craft, by sending them during these periods of closest proximity, as well as sending a steady flow of robots to prepare for human arrivals.

Musk added that in around four years’ time, work will begin on the development of the massive spaceship, but the company will also continue working with governmental organisations like NASA on separate projects.

All of these factors will help in us becoming a “spacefaring civilisation and a multi-planet species”, that Musk is eager to see.

In 1962, John F Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Now, we choose to go to Mars.

You can check out Musk’s full presentation below.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic