When he isn’t disrupting transportation and energy technology, exploring the limits of artificial intelligence, or creating satellite networks to bring the internet to every person on earth, Elon Musk is thinking about making mankind an interplanetary species, starting with Mars. This week, Musk revealed details of exactly how he plans to made a Mars colony a reality.
The Musk Mars Colony Plan
The key to the plan is reusable rockets, something that Musk admits seemed extremely unlikely when SpaceX was founded in 2002. “I thought we had maybe a 10 percent chance of doing anything — of even getting a rocket to orbit, let alone getting beyond that and taking Mars seriously.”
Now, SpaceX routinely recovers the first stage of its Falcon 9 rockets and is working on ways to recover other pieces of the rockets as well. Reusing components significantly reduces the cost of space flight, just as reusing airplanes significantly reduces the cost of travelling by air.
Making Humans A Multi-Planetary Species
Musk has made his written plan, entitled “Making Humans A Multi-Planetary Species,” available for free now though July 5th. It is well worth downloading and printing so you can share it with your grandkids. Musk thinks the time frame for his Mars colony is 50 to 100 years in the future.
The plan relies heavily on reusable space craft. SpaceX is developing its next generation Raptor rocket engine, which will be three times more powerful than the Merlin engines it uses today. Strapping 42 of them together will result in a rocket capable of lifting up to 600 tons into low earth orbit. That is four times as much weight at the Saturn V that powered the first moon missions. It had a capacity of “only” 150 tons.
The Man Who Launched 1000 Space Ships
Once in orbit, passengers and cargo would transfer to Interplanetary Transport System capsules capable of carrying 100 people to Mars. Since the Earth and Mars are in proper alignment only once every 26 months, the ITS ships would orbit earth with their passengers and cargo aboard until the time is right. Then up to 1,000 of them would depart for Mars at roughly the same time. The ITS ships would be refueled while in orbit by a fleet of reusable tankers.
The space craft carrying people and fuel into orbit would return to Earth about 20 minutes after launch, landing precisely in the same spot where the journey began. “With the addition of maneuvering thrusters, we think we can actually put the booster right back on the launch stand,” Musk writes.
You Can Go Home Again
Getting people to Mars is one thing. How do the ITS capsules return to earth? Musk has that planned out as well. They would use an array of 9 Raptor engines powered by a methane-based fuel produced on Mars itself. That way, the fuel needed to get home doesn’t have to be included in the weight needed to get the space craft to Mars in the first place.
Musk expects the ITS capsules would have a useful life of 12 to 15 Mars journeys. All this reusability means the cost per person would be about $200,000, Musk thinks — far less that the $10 billion per person the trip would cost using conventional space craft.
New Worlds To Conquer
Following the Musk formula would enable up to 1 million people to be living on Mars 100 years from now. What they would be doing up there is anybody’s guess. If humanity’s history here on Earth is any guide, they would probably be working hard on destroying their new home just as they did their previous one.
That may be why the space shuttles Musk has in mind are called an Interplanetary Transport System and not a Mars Transport System. Musk peers further into the future than most mere mortals and is already thinking of journeys to other planets, maybe in other solar systems.
Perhaps with some help from Elon Musk, mankind might eventually overcome its penchant for self destruction. Than again, maybe not. Even Elon Musk can only do so much.
Source: Space.com Graphic credit: SpaceX
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