SpaceX wins two rivals in audacious mission to Mars

SpaceX could lose the race to be the first private company to send a space mission to Mars. Perhaps.

For years, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, has been talking about making humanity an interplanetary species by someday sending people to colonize Mars. The company is building a giant space vehicle, the Starship, with that goal in mind.

But a new rocket company, Relativity Space, and a small startup founded by an engineer who used to lead rocket engine development at SpaceX, have announced plans to send a privately-developed robotic module to Mars. With an optimistic outlook – very optimistic – the two companies say they could do this within 2 1/2 years, when the positions of Earth and Mars align again.

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Timothy Ellis, CEO and founder of Relativity, said that the way SpaceX aims to do things “on the edge of madness, with ambition and audacity” was an inspiration.

“These types of goals attract the best people to work on them,” said Ellis. “We are bolder than some of the other companies.”

If a commercial mission to Mars is successful, it could open a new market in which institutions, companies and national space agencies could send payloads to the red planet at a more affordable cost.

This would be similar to how several companies hope to make money by sending payloads to the moon for paying customers, including NASA, starting later this year. But it would happen on a more difficult and distant scale. A NASA mission to Mars costs at least half a billion dollars, although that includes sophisticated instruments.

Ellis declined to comment on how much the company’s mission would cost, but said the investment money raised by Relativity, as well as revenue from contracts it has to launch commercial satellites, could be enough to pay for the mission to Mars. Relativity has, for example, an agreement with the company OneWeb to take broadband satellites into orbit around the planet.

“I think there’s a real chance that we can do this with what we currently have,” Ellis said.

Relativity Space wants to launch first rocket to Mars soon
Relativity Space wants to launch first rocket to Mars soon

There are many reasons for skepticism.

A decade ago, for example, several space companies promised treasures by mining asteroids, but went out of business without ever getting anywhere near an asteroid. Even Musk often gives overly optimistic predictions for SpaceX’s next historic feat. (In 2016, he said that the Starship, which at the time was called an interplanetary transport system and was an even bigger project, would make its first unmanned flight to Mars by 2022.)

For now, Ellis doesn’t have Musk’s track record of sooner or later achieving most of his big promises.

Relativity has yet to launch any rockets. The first flight of your Terran 1 could take place in a few weeks, departing Cape Canaveral, Florida. But the mission to Mars depends on a much larger rocket, the Terran R, which can be compared in size and lift capacity to the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s flagship rocket that has launched 31 times so far in 2021. That project is not scheduled. to get off the ground by late 2024 or early 2025, Ellis said.

Relativity’s partner, Boost Space, is an even younger company with less experience. But its founder, Thomas Mueller, is a veteran of the space business and was employee number one when Musk started SpaceX in 2002. Mueller led the development of the Merlin family of rocket engines, used in the Falcon 9.

He retired and left SpaceX in 2020. A year later, he founded Impulse to develop spacecraft for transport between locations in space.

“I have a feeling that if it’s not challenging and people think it’s difficult, and maybe it’s not possible to do, it’s not difficult enough,” Mueller said. “We need to do things that people believe cannot be done.”

Landing on Mars — reaching around 19,000 km/h, without catching fire in the atmosphere, and then landing on the ground, intact, just seven minutes later — fits the challenge category. Only NASA and China have had successful missions to the surface of the red planet.

Once launched, the Impulse spacecraft would detach from the rocket’s upper stage and go on a nine-month trip to Mars.

The spacecraft would consist of a cruise module to handle propulsion and communications during the voyage to Mars and a capsule with a landing module. Close to Mars, the capsule would separate from the cruise module and enter the atmosphere for a landing similar to that of InSight, a NASA spacecraft that landed on Mars in 2018 to measure seismic activity on the planet.

Mueller said the capsule’s size and shape would be the same as those used on the InSight mission. “It’s like using the same types of thermal protection materials, the exact same model of parachute,” he said. “So we’re just using what NASA has already analyzed a lot and tested on every mission of this size that has gone to Mars successfully.”

We need to do things that people believe cannot be done.”

Thomas Mueller, founder of Impulse Space and veteran of the space business

The lander would be the size of InSight but lighter, Mueller said. The basic configuration wouldn’t even include the solar panels and wouldn’t work for very long, just until the batteries run out.

Mueller said Impulse began talking to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which is responsible for the InSight mission, this year.

However, a spokesperson for the lab said there hasn’t been much work yet between the institution and Impulse. “It appears that we have had some preliminary discussions with Impulse on the subject,” said spokesman Andrew Good. “But while they’ve been reaching out to meet this year, that meeting hasn’t happened yet.”

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Director Eric Ianson said, through a spokesman at the agency’s headquarters, that NASA had no direct contact with Impulse and was not aware of the specifics of what the company was doing. was intending to do. / TRANSLATION OF ROMINA CACIA

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