Ready or not, Musk is dragging us into interplanetary species status

By Evan Gough

SpaceX's newly revealed Interplanetary Transit System will make travel to Mars, and other destinations in our Solar System, possible. Image: SpaceX

Today, Elon Musk elaborated on his plans to make humanity a planet-faring species. We’ve known for a long time that Mars is SpaceX’s destination, but the fine details haven’t been revealed. In today’s talk at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Musk revealed a game-changer for travel to Mars, and beyond.

If anyone has ever guessed that Musk’s plans involved a refuelling ship, I’ve never heard them say it out loud. But that’s exactly what Musk revealed. SpaceX plans to launch a Mars-bound craft into orbit, then launch a refuelling craft to refill the interplanetary ship’s fuel tanks. Only then would the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) depart for Mars.

SpaceX’s proposed system is all about lowering the cost of travel to Mars. Only when the cost is lowered, does a sustained presence there become realistic. And Musk’s ITS system will definitely lower the cost.

Traditional space travel would cost 10 billion to get one person to Mars. Musk said that they can get it down to the median cost of a house in the US, about $200,000 US. The idea is that anyone who really wanted to could save up enough money and go to Mars. Musk did acknowledge that it will be tricky to reduce the cost of the Earth to Mars trip by a whopping 5 million percent.

There are four keys to reducing the cost:

  • full reusability
  • refilling in orbit
  • propellant production on Mars
  • right propellant

The ITS would feature reusable boosters, reusable spaceships, and refuelling in orbit. The interplanetary ship would be launched into orbit around Earth and parked there. Fuel ships would make 3 to 5 trips to fill the tank of the interplanetary ship waiting in orbit. From there, Musk thinks that the trip to Mars could take as little as 80 days. In the more distant future, that could be cut to 30 days.

The ITS requires an extraordinarly powerful booster, featuring 42 of SpaceX’s Raptor engines. Image: SpaceX

If this whole system isn’t shocking enough, and thrilling enough, for you, Musk has more than just one of these craft in mind. He imagines a fleet of them, perhaps 1,000, travelling en masse back and forth to Mars.

The driving force behind all this is, of course, making Mars possible. In his presentation, Musk said we have two paths. One is to stay on Earth and face extinction from some doomsday event. The other is to become an interplanetary species, and use Mars to back up Earth’s biosphere. The SpaceX system is designed to make the second path possible.

Musk talked about the need to create a self-sustaining city in its own right. That obviously won’t happen right away, but it’ll never happen unless transport to Mars, and back, becomes feasible. With the proposed SpaceX system, Mars will be an option. Musk thinks that the ITS could also get us to one of the Jovian moons, if we could create fuel production and depots. In fact, he said we can probably go all the way to Pluto and beyond.

The ITS requires huge fuel tanks, one of which is seen here at SpaceX’s production facility. Image: SpaceX

There are a lot of challenges for this system. It’s far from a done deal. The system will require newer, more powerful engines. But SpaceX is already working on that. It’s called the Raptor, and testing has already begun.

Musk talked about the impressive exploration done on Mars by NASA and other agencies, but stressed that it’s time to take things further and aim for a sustained presence on Mars. To that end, SpaceX plans on sending a craft to Mars during every Earth-Mars rendezvous, which happens about every 22 months. Initially, that will be done with an unmanned Dragon capsule.

The mood at Musk’s presentation was one of excitement. The crowd was definitely there to see him. There was one humorous moment when Musk remarked “Timelines. I’m not the best at this sort of thing.” But really, what agency can adhere to strict schedules when doing something that’s never been done before? Especially in the realm of interplanetary travel?

There was much more detail in his presentation, including in the Q&A that followed his talk. Stay tuned for more.

Source: Universe Today