Elon Musk is a Martian God

Is it crazy to believe the human race could leave this planet and settle on another? Are the physical, biological, social and scientific obstacles insurmountable? Shouldn’t we fix our own planetary problems first? And what’s the point anyway? Why do we need to go anywhere?

At a recent International Astronautical Conference in Mexico, Elon Musk attempted to answer all these questions, presenting a vision for a human colony on Mars. In the talk titled Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species, he argued that humanity had two paths it could take: either stay on Earth and submit to eventual extinction or colonise other planets. The first colonisation choice he argued should be Mars, because of its similarities to Earth and its proximity. His dreams are vast, the science solid, and his passion captivating. He hopes to one day see a human colony on Mars with a million people, making the settlement genetically self-sustaining.

Musk detailed how close SpaceX was to making his dreams a reality, including a new spaceship design, the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), a powerful new engine, and exactly how the Mars trip would work.  A “scaled-up version” of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster called the “Raptor engine” that will power the ship has been successfully tested. A methane fuel-powered machine, each raptor can generate roughly 680,000 pounds of thrust. Forty-two Raptor engines will propel the ITS to Mars and beyond.

The Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) Elon Musk hopes will take us to Mars
The Interplanetary Transport System (ITS)

What will SpaceX’s Mars trip involve?

After being launched by a booster rocket, the ITS will be parked in a low Earth orbit. The booster rocket will then return to Earth to be used again to send a second “tanker” spacecraft to refuel the ITS multiple times. Once refuelled in Earth’s orbit, the ITS will deploy two solar arrays that generate 200 kW of power and take off for Mars. The ITS itself will be made from a new type of carbon fibre composite and will carry up to 100 people and 100 tonnes of cargo.

Just like the SpaceX’s current Falcon 9 rockets, the ITS will land on the surface using its booster rockets when it arrives. This means there’ll be no need for the complexity of a second “lander” craft – as presented in Ridley Scott’s movie “The Martian” – or as used in the Apollo Moon missions.

How the trip to Mars will work using the Interplanetary Transport System
The trip to mars using the Interplanetary Transport System

Why is SpaceX using methane fuel?

One of the interesting ideas Musk presented was refuelling the ITS on the Martian surface. Methane can be produced using carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere and water ice in the soil. In situ production would allow the ITS to be refuelled on the surface, and would mean the Mars trip would not be a one-way affair. Once every two years, when Earth and Mars orbits’ are in their most favourable positions, the spacecraft could return. This would save spacecraft production costs and set up a regular Mars run between the two worlds. Musk wants to make the journey a “really fun” trip with Zero-G games, movies, cabins, games and a restaurant.

How long would the SpaceX Mars trip take?

According to Musk, the trip will take as little as 80 days, up to 150 depending on the year and the technology.  The orbit of Mars is an eccentric one, varying in relation to the gravitational influences of the bodies around it, more so than many of the other planets. Because of this  orbital eccentricity, the travel times between Earth and Mars change frequently. Musk hopes that with improvements in technology travel time will be as little as 30 days “in the more distant future.” Other spacecraft that have travelled to Mars have taken between 360 days (Viking 2 in 1976) and 210 days (the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2006).

At the moment, Musk is planning to land an unmanned ship on Mars by 2018 and humans by 2024.

Can Musk and SpaceX make it happen?

By open sourcing SpaceX’s Mars plans, Musk can use any feedback he receives to simultaneously improve the plans and generate enthusiasm amongst those willing to help turn the plans into a reality.

While it’s clear that Musk and his team have thought through a lot of the details, numerous questions and problems remain. The biological impact of space travel and living on another planet with a lower gravity remain unknown. The cost is also likely to be enormous. Elon Musk’s companies, SpaceX and Tesla, are making money, but not enough to fund numerous trips to Mars, let alone set up a permanent colony. Musk mentioned he would need the help of NASA and many others to cover the costs.

Personally, I’m optimistic. If anyone can get us to Marts, Musk and his SpaceX team have exactly what it takes. Only a few years ago, sending a rocket into space and landing it back on Earth appeared only in science fiction novels and films. His electric car company Tesla and his Hyperloop concepts are also incredible achievements. Musk is an engineering God among men and Mars is clearly his next destination.