Elon Musk Will Put Humans on Mars Much Sooner Than We Think, Astronaut Says


The first space race of the 21st century has Mars as its finish line. While victory is still likely years, even decades away, Elon Musk and SpaceX have made the most tangible progress toward the red planet, and one person with plenty of first-hand expertise in all things space thinks the company could get us to Mars sooner than anybody would have guessed.

British astronaut Tim Peake, who has spent 185 days aboard the International Space Station, offered his thoughts on the future of Martian exploration at a recent event organized by the charity Aerobility. He said the first humans on Mars will likely get there in about two decades, if government agencies remain the main drivers, but there’s a chance private spaceflight could accelerate that timeline.

“Humans on Mars, I think will be the late 2030s,” said Peake. “That’s what the government space agencies and the International Space Exploration Group are working towards. It could be that some of [these people’s] programs bring that date forward. But, the late 2030s would be a realistic time frame. What could throw a big bowling ball through all that is commercial spaceflight.”

Musk and SpaceX aren’t the only players in the commercial field, of course. There are Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, and more conventional private contractors for government projects, like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. But Musk’s company has raced ahead of its competitors in demonstrating the actual practical usability of its rocket technology, especially after last month’s Falcon Heavy launch.

“We have seen the ambitions of people like Elon Musk,” said Peake. “There are several other companies that also have ambitions to send people to Mars. I think that we will end up working very closely with these companies in public-private partnerships when we eventually go to Mars.”

That idea of public-private partnerships is an intriguing one. For his part, Musk has spoken exclusively about SpaceX when detailing his plans for Mars. A partnership with NASA on a Mars mission — perhaps one where NASA astronauts and terrestrial support staff conduct a mission using one of SpaceX’s planned BFR craft to get to the red planet — is certainly conceivable, but it’s not the plan right now.

Still, such a plan could prove the most effective way to combine SpaceX’s cutting-edge rocket tech with NASA’s institutional experience, but that’s not the plan right now. It’s also possible that NASA or another space agency — like Peake’s own European Space Agency — could team with another private spaceflight company, assuming Musk plans to go it alone.

The point is, though, that all those possibilities suggest an acceleration of government agencies’ current plans for spaceflight. If the set target is the late 2030s, it’s possible market competition could knock several years off that, especially if SpaceX can find the same success with the BFR that it did last month with the Falcon Heavy.

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Is SpaceX Being Environmentally Responsible?


Falcon Heavy’s flashy space car may not have been the best idea—for Mars

 

SpaceX via Twitter

SpaceX has now launched the most powerful spacecraft since the Apollo era—the Falcon Heavy rocket—setting the bar for future space launches. The most important thing about this reusable spacecraft is that it can carry a payload equivalent to sending five double-decker London buses into space—which will be invaluable for future manned space exploration or in sending bigger satellites into orbit.

Falcon Heavy essentially comprises three previously tested rockets strapped together to create one giant spacecraft. The launch drew massive international audiences—but while it was an amazing event to witness, there are some important potential drawbacks that must be considered as we assess the impact of this mission on space exploration.

But let’s start by looking at some of the many positives. Falcon Heavy is capable of taking 68 tonnes of equipment into orbit close to the Earth. The current closest competitor is the Delta IV heavy which has a payload equivalent of 29 tonnes. So Falcon Heavy represents a big step forward in delivering ever larger satellites or manned missions out to explore our solar system. For the purposes of colonizing Mars or the moon, this is a welcome and necessary development.

The launch itself, the views from the payload and the landing of the booster rockets can only be described as stunning. The chosen payload was a Tesla Roadster vehicle belonging to Space X founder and CEO Elon Musk—with a dummy named “Starman” sitting in the driver’s seat along with plenty of cameras.

This sort of launch spectacle gives a much needed public engagement boost to the space industry that has not been seen since the time of the space race in the 1960s. As a side effect this camera feed from the payload also provided yet another proof that the Earth is not flat—a subject about which Musk has previously been vocal.

The fact that this is a fully reusable rocket is also an exciting development. While vehicles such as the Space Shuttle have been reusable, their launch vehicles have not. That means their launches resulted in a lot of rocket boosters and main fuel tanks either burning up in the atmosphere or sitting on the bottom of the ocean (some are recovered).

This recovery massively reduces the launch cost for both exploration and scientific discovery. The Falcon Heavy has been promoted as providing a cost of roughly US$1,300 per kg of payload, while the space shuttle cost approximately $60,000 per kg. The impact this price drop has for innovative new space products and research is groundbreaking. The rocket boosters on this test flight had a controlled and breathtakingly simultaneous landing onto the launch pad.

So what could possibly be wrong with this groundbreaking test flight? While visually appealing, cheaper and a major technological advancement, what about the environmental impact? The rocket is reusable, which means cutting down the resources required for the metal body of the rocket. However, the mass of most rockets are more than 95% fuel. Building bigger rockets with bigger payloads means more fuel is used for each launch. The current fuel for Falcon Heavy is RP-1 (a refined kerosene) and liquid oxygen, which creates a lot of carbon dioxide when burnt.

The amount of kerosene in three Falcon 9 rockets is roughly 440 tonnes and RP-1 has a 34 percent carbon content. This amount of carbon is a drop in the ocean compared to global industrial emissions as a whole, but if the SpaceX’s plan for a rocket launch every two weeks comes to fruition, this amount of carbon (approximately 4,000 tonnes per year) will rapidly become a bigger problem.

The car test payload is also something of an issue. The vehicle has been scheduled to head towards Mars, but what has not been made clear is what is going to happen to it afterwards. Every modern space mission is required to think about clearing up after itself. In the cases of planetary or lunar satellites this inevitably results in either a controlled burn-up in the atmosphere, or a direct impact with the body they orbit.

Space debris is rapidly becoming one of the biggest problems we face—there are more than 150 million objects that need tracking to ensure as few collisions with working spacecraft as possible. The result of any impact or degradation of the car near Mars could start creating debris at the red planet, meaning that the pollution of another planet has already begun.

Space Junk
Space Junk 

However, current reports suggest that the rocket may have overshot its trajectory, meaning the vehicle will head towards the asteroid belt rather than Mars. This is probably going to mean a collision is inevitable. The scattering of tiny fragments of an electric vehicle is pollution at the minimum—and a safety hazard for future missions at worst. Where these fragments end up will be hard to predict—and hence troublesome for future satellite launches to Mars, Saturn or Jupiter. The debris could be drawn by the gravity of Mars, asteroids or even swept away with the solar wind.

What is also unclear is whether the car was built in a perfect clean room. If not there is the risk that bacteria from Earth may spread through the solar system after a collision. This would be extremely serious, given that we are currently planning to search for life on neighbouring bodies such as Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa. If microorganisms were found there we may never know whether they actually came from Earth in the first place.

Of course, these issues don’t affect my sense of excitement and wonder at watching the amazing launch. The potential advantages of this large-scale rocket are incredible, but private space firms must also be aware that the potential negative impacts (both in space and on Earth) are just as large.

Why Elon Musk’s Tesla Will Last Thousands of Years in Space, Scientifically


After at least seven years of planning and preparation, on Tuesday, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy will finally make its maiden voyage. Though the aerospace company will attempt to land several of its boosters back on terra firma, its payload will continue along on a one-way ticket toward Mars — but how long will its sojourn around the Red Planet last?

Falcon Heavy's Tesla heading toward Mars

Let’s clear something up right off the bat: Elon Musk’s midnight cherry Roadster isn’t actually going to Mars. It’s not even going to be orbiting Mars in the way that the red planet’s two moons do. Instead, the car will be placed in a heliocentric orbit, meaning it will revolve around the sun, just like all the planets in our solar system.

“The Falcon Heavy will achieve this by using three rockets, with the first two separating after stage one of the launch,” Ben Thornber, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, writes in The Conversation. “The final rocket will then lift the Tesla Roadster up into space, where it will enter a highly elliptical orbit between the Earth and Mars. Without external interference, Falcon Heavy will remain in this orbit for thousands of years.”

The specific kind of heliocentric orbit Musk’s roadster will be traveling on is called Trans-Mars injection, meaning it will orbit the sun in a manner that will bring it close to Earth and Mars again and again. This could mean that the Tesla will be placed several million miles away from Mars, but it’ll still get to snuggle up to the planet — and ours — many times.

Of course, getting the Roadster to its final destination is the hard part. First and foremast, the Falcon Heavy has to not blow up on ascent, which is harder than it sounds. Then, it has to traverse Earth’s Van Allen belt, which is full of high-energy particles waiting to whack the crap out of it. Then, the Tesla has to cruise in deep space for about six hours to reach the finish line.

It’s a lot, but if SpaceX pulls this off, it’ll make history — again.

“We estimate it will be in that orbit for several hundred million years, or maybe in excess of a billion years,” Musk announced in a press conference yesterday.

There’s only one way to find out whether or not Musk’s Tesla will make it to Mars — watch the launch on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern.

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