SpaceX plans to send unmanned Dragon spacecraft to Mars by 2018, with humans to follow

SpaceX

By way of tweets and Facebook posts, SpaceX this week announced plans to send its unmanned “Red Dragon” spacecraft to Mars as soon as 2018. Sending this privately-funded craft on a bold, brave, risky trip like this could bring SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk closer to his goal of getting humans to Mars.

"SpaceX is planning to send Dragons to Mars as early as 2018," a SpaceX Facebook on Wednesday read. "These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars."

SpaceX hasn't said exactly how many of the capsule spacecraft it plans to send, but indicated plans to conduct a series of Dragon missions, with more details coming soon.

If they pull it off, SpaceX becomes the first private space exploration venture to land a vehicle on a planet other than Earth.

"You can't land on Mars using parachutes like you would on Earth," NPR's Geoff Brumfiel said on air, "because the atmosphere isn't thick enough."

Dragon isn't big enough to carry astronauts past the Moon, Musk said. The spacecraft is about the size of a large car. "Wouldn't be fun for longer journeys," Musk tweeted.

2018 is very very soon. The whole thing sounds crazy, but it's -- it's not actually that nuts. From Wired:

2018 is the very near future. If SpaceX were starting their Mars program today, their deadline would be a total joke. “They’ve said for a long time that they intend to test their Dragon 2 capsule by going to Mars and trying to land,” says David Hewitt, a rocket scientist with private spaceflight company Dynetics. SpaceX has been working on its human-capable capsule for several years. It is not only bigger than the original cargo-only Dragon, but capable of making planet landings using eight thrusters.

More early reporting: The Independent, SpaceFlight Now. And of course, lots more about the mission and the spacecraft at spacex.com.

Portions of the Martian surface shot by NASA's MRO show many channels from 1 meter to 10 meters wide on a scarp in the Hellas impact basin.

Portions of the Martian surface shot by NASA's MRO show many channels from 1 meter to 10 meters wide on a scarp in the Hellas impact basin.