Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, has released new details of his vision to colonise parts of the solar system, including Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus. His plans – designed to make humans a multi-planetary species in case civilisation collapses – include launching flights to Mars as early as 2023. The details, just published in the journal New Space, are certainly ambitious. But are they realistic? is paper proposes several interesting ways of trying to get to Mars and beyond – and he aims to build a "self-sustaining city" on the red planet. The idea depends on getting cheaper access to space – the paper says the cost of trips to Mars must be lowered by "five million percent". An important part of this will be reusable space technology. This is an excellent idea that Musk is already putting into practice with impressive landings of rocket stages back on Earth – undoubtedly a huge technological step.
Making fuel on Mars and stations beyond it is something he also proposes, to make the costs feasible. Experiments towards this are underway, demonstrating that choosing the right propellant is key. The MOXIE experiment on the NASA 2020 rover will investigate whether we can produce oxygen from atmospheric CO2 on Mars. This may be possible. But Musk would like to make methane as well – it would be cheaper and more reusable. This is a tricky reaction which requires a lot of energy. Yet, so far, it's all fairly doable. But the plans then get more and more incredible. Musk wants to launch enormous spaceships into orbit around Earth where they will be refuelled several times using boosters launched from the ground while waiting to head to Mars.
Each will be designed to take 100 people and Musk wants to launch 1,000 such ships in the space of 40 to 100 years, enabling a million people to leave Earth. There would also be interplanetary fuel-filling stations on bodies such as Enceladus, Europa and even Saturn's moon Titan, where there may have been, or may still be, life. Fuel would be produced and stored on these moons. The aim of these would be to enable us to travel deeper into space to places such as the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud. The "Red Dragon" capsule is proposed as a potential lander on such missions, using propulsion in combination with other technology rather than parachutes as most Mars missions do.
Musk plans to test such a landing on Mars in 2020 with an unmanned mission.
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