NASA Considering SpaceX "Red Dragon" for Returning Mars Samples to Earth
March 10, 2014 2:43 PM
This could happen as soon as 2022
NASA wants to analyze some terrain samples from Mars in an effort to answer whether life exists there, but the problem has been transporting such samples from the Red Planet back to Earth.
But now, it looks as though NASA has found a potential solution: customize a
SpaceX Dragon capsule
While this is just a proposal for now and is by no means a planned mission with set funding yet, NASA said that modifying a SpaceX Dragon capsule into a landing craft could be a cost-effective way of bringing Martian samples back to Earth as soon as 2022.
An internal study at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California revealed that the modified Dragon capsule -- dubbed "Red Dragon" -- would make a direct entry into the atmosphere of Mars and descend to the surface using retro propulsion for a precision touchdown (thanks to SuperDraco rocket engines) instead of a parachute system.
The study suggests a Red Dragon could land roughly 2 metric tons of useful payload on Mars. A Red Dragon has "several times" the volume of the Viking heritage entry vehicle from the 1970s, and would be equipped to carry a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV), and hardware to transfer samples collected.
From there, the Red Dragon return vehicle would exit the Martian surface, thanks to some help from the MAV, and make its way toward Earth.
A big plus for Red Dragon is that the mission would not require the transfer of samples from one vehicle to another in Mars orbit.
"The significance of the work is that it opens the door to the efficient achievement of an important planetary science objective at a lower complexity level and, by extension, at potentially lower cost than previously considered," said Andrew Gonzales, leader of the NASA study.
This certainly isn't NASA and SpaceX's first project together. SpaceX -- which is headed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk -- flew its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket to the ISS
for the first time
back in May 2012 for a test supply run. After that successful trip, SpaceX and NASA signed a $1.6 billion contract that allows SpaceX to complete 12 supply trips to the ISS and back.
In October 2012, the Dragon capsule completed its
first official cargo run
to the ISS, bringing home 1,673 pounds of cargo.
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