Photo from static2.businessinsider.com
By Andy Liang
Elon Musk plans to have humans on Mars as early as 2022.
On September 27, 2016, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, hosted an event to announce his plan to have humans on Mars by 2022. He started off the presentation by stating that humanity only has two fundamental paths for the future:
“History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever and then there will be some eventual extinction event … The alternative is to become a space bearing civilization and a multi-planet species.”
Musk explains that SpaceX chose Mars because Mercury and Venus were too close to the Sun while the moons of Jupiter and Saturn were too far. Earth’s moon was also a candidate, however, it lacked an atmosphere and was less resource rich than Mars. In addition, one Moon day constituted 28 Earth days while a day on Mars was about 24.7 Earth hours. Musk presented a graph comparing properties of Earth and Mars.
It was clear that Mars was the ideal candidate for interplanetary colonization.
However, the issue of price still remained. Using current methods, a mission to Mars would cost 10 billion US dollars. Musk wanted to reduce the price down so that it would have been equivalent to around 200,000 dollars, the median cost of a house. He was tasked with the challenge of reducing the price by 5 million percent.
Musk introduced the four key aspects to reducing price: full reusability, refilling in orbit, propellant production on Mars and the right propellant.
Refilling in orbit would decrease the weight of the space craft during launch, allowing more people to be sent to Mars at one time. Musk hopes to have around 100 people per trip. Having a means for propellant production on Mars would allow the space craft to be sent back to Earth for reuse. Musk says that this is feasible because Mars’s carbon dioxide atmosphere and ice water contain the basic ingredients to create methane and oxygen for the propellant that they decided to use: Deep-Cryo Methalox.
Full reusability is going to be the most important aspect among the four. Having a reusable space craft, tanker, and booster would dramatically reduce the cost of transiting to Mars.
Musk presented this animated video to visualize the steps of the Mars missions:
The booster launches and sends the spacecraft into orbit, then detaches and heads back to the launching station where it picks up the propellant tank. It then launches again and sends the tanker to the spacecraft where it refills its fuel in orbit. The booster and tanker both return to Earth while the spacecraft begins its journey to Mars. It deploys solar arrays which generate 200 kilowatts of power. For around 115 days, the craft moves at an average of 100,800 kilometers per hour (62,364 miles per hour) until it reaches Mars where it enters the atmosphere and heats up to 1700 degrees Celsius (3092 degrees Fahrenheit) before landing on the surface.
Musk estimates that it will take 40 – 100 years to have a fully sustaining civilization on Mars and that once Mars has been colonized, it opens up the opportunity to explore other planets and moons.
Musk’s plan is ambitious and detailed, but there still remains a concern: how does SpaceX plan to terraform Mars? Terraforming is the act of transforming a planet so that it is able to support human life. Mars’s atmosphere may have once been able to support life, but currently it is uninhabitable. When asked by Stephen Colbert, Musk proposed that dropping thermonuclear bombs on the ice water on Mars’s poles would release carbon dioxide and create an atmosphere. He later clarified that he wanted to “essentially hav[e] two pulsing suns over the poles.” These suns would be formed by nuclear bombs exploding every couple of seconds above Mars. However, that concept is still currently within the realm of science fiction.
Even with the inconsistency, SpaceX already has funding from a few billionaires and the support of many scientists. If Musk’s plan goes smoothly, we will be seeing people on Mars much sooner than we previously thought.
Although we’re probably going to need a really big telescope.