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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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RE: So this is what budget cuts get us?
By danjw1 on 3/11/2014 1:23:06 AM , Rating: 2
For half a penny more we might be able to fund some real space missions. Half a penny! (to quote Tyson) But instead, we're stuck with this?

Actually, that is what the Red Dragon is being designed to do. But first NASA needs to accelerate the commercial crewed launch program so we can get astronauts to ISS. SpaceX is scheduled for launch abort testing this year on their Dragon Rider space ship. I believe that Elon Musk has stated he expects manned missions next year.

I also believe that Orbital Sciences is working on a manned ship.

If you really think NASA could do this in house cheaper, then I doubt you know much about government. ;-)

By fteoath64 on 3/13/2014 6:30:45 AM , Rating: 2
"If you really think NASA could do this in house cheaper,". NASA does not built ANYTHING, they have been using subcontractors all along and always have. Now they are making such subcontracting more publicly visible in changing their mode of operations. It still sucks plenty (too much) money for what they actually do. It is actually a military operations masquerading as a civilian company.
So the MIC (military industrial congressional complex) has a way to drain the finances of the people while doing so called legitimate projects that really has no fixed budget since no one could really predict how much it will cost. Or that it will work. NASA only oversees the subcontractors to ensure it conforms to specs they laid out. Again no guarantee it will work.
If any attempts were to be made, it ought to be as small a system as possibly be built. Like taking 20 grams of Martian soil via unmaned robotic probes. If these systems are very small, then parts of the journey can have duplicate or triplicate systems as backups to ensure the mission continues. ie Land a tiny lander with a soil scoop capable of a few teaspoons, then take off and rejoin the awaiting docking transports to come home.

"I f***ing cannot play Halo 2 multiplayer. I cannot do it." -- Bungie Technical Lead Chris Butcher

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