Mars is by far the most studied planet that isn’t our own, having had 46 separate missions launched to it since the 1960s and is currently host to no less than 5 active missions both in orbit and on its surface. Those missions have taught us a lot about our red celestial sister, the most intriguing of which is that it was once not unlike Earth, covered in vast swaths of ocean which could potentially have been host to all sorts of life. Even more interesting is that while it’s little more than a barren desert that’s only notionally above vacuum it still contains water ice in non-trivial quantities, leading many to speculate that somewhere its liquid form must also exist. The process by which Mars transformed from a lush landscape like ours to the wasteland it is today is still shrouded in mystery and is something that MAVEN, NASA’s latest mission to Mars, is seeking to solve.
MAVEN successfully launched yesterday atop of an ATLAS V rocket and will spend the better part of a year transiting the distance between Earth and Mars. Its primary objective is to investigate the evolution of Mars’ atmosphere to try and ascertain the factors that influenced its demise. Since the current prevailing theory is that a cooling planetary core led to a loss of a protective magnetic field which then allowed the solar wind to slow strip away the atmosphere many of the instruments aboard the craft are geared towards measuring solar particles around Mars’ orbit. The rest of the instrumentation is focused on directly measuring Mars’ atmosphere which will then allow scientists to reconstruct a full picture of it and the influences working on it.
I believe this is also (and someone feel free to correct me on this) the reason for its slightly abnormal orbit for when it arrives at Mars. Instead of taking the usual approach of having a near circular orbit (like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) it instead has a highly elliptical orbit with the closet approach being a mere 150KM above the surface whilst its furthest point is 6200KM out. This would allow the craft to get good measurements of the levels of solar particles as it gets closer to the surface and how that compares to it further out. Considering the orbital period will also only be 4.5 hours it would make for some rather exciting flybys if you were aboard that craft but then again that’s not an orbit you’d use if you had people on board.
The orbit also has the rather unfortunate effect of limiting one of MAVEN’s more long term capabilities: it’s link back to Earth. MAVEN has a 10Mbit/s link thanks to an updated Electra array which is almost twice as powerful as MRO’s. However due to the rather eccentric orbit it won’t be available as often which will limit the amount of data that can be passed back. This doesn’t just impact the satellite itself though as whilst the rovers on Mars can communicate directly to Earth it’s not a very fast connection, so most offload onto a local satellite for their more data hungry applications. Since it’s currently only an augment to the other fleet of satellites around Mars this isn’t too much of an issue although it could present some contention issues later on the track when the other satellites are retired.
The science that MAVEN will conduct on its planned 1 year mission will prove invaluable in determining just what happened to Mars’ atmosphere and, by extension, what the chances are of any life existing on its surface today. It will also provide infrastructure for future missions, allowing them to be more ambitious in the goals that they attempt to reach. For now though it’s 1 day into its long trip to our celestial sister, quietly awaiting the day when it can finally start fulfilling its purpose.
The moon is our closest celestial neighbour and as a consequence is by far one of the most studied celestial bodies. By all accounts it’s a barren wasteland, covered in numerous pot marks from the asteroids that have bombarded it over its lifetime. However the more we investigate it the more we find out that, whilst there’s almost no chance of life being present there, many of the resources that life depends on can be found there. Whilst we’ve known for a while that it would be possible to extract water from the regolith on the surface new observations from NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 have revealed that there might be actual water on the Moon, just waiting there for us to use.
The initial implications of this are obvious. Water is one of the fundamental resources required for any human based space mission and the amount required usually has to be brought along for the ride. This means the payload capacity used for bringing water along can’t be used for other things, like additional supplies or more equipment, and presents a big challenge for long duration flights. Having a source on the Moon means that any potential bases or colonies established there would have much less reliance on resupply missions from Earth, something which is the primary limiting factor for any off-world colonies that we attempt to establish.
However that pales in comparison when compared to what water on the Moon means for space in general: it’s a primary component for rocket fuel.
Water’s basic composition is hydrogen and oxygen which are the components which power many of the liquid fuelled rocket engines that operate today. Of course in their bonded state they’re not a ready to use propellent exactly so a process is required to break those bonds and get those atoms separated. Thankfully such a process exists, called electrolysis, which splits water down into its component gasses which can then be stored and later used to send rockets on their way. Of course such a process relies on a stable power source which would likely be some like of large solar array backed up by a large battery bank to last through the 2 week long darkness that regularly blankets half the surface.
The biggest challenge that many of the long duration or large payload missions face is the fact that they require more fuel. Carrying more fuel unfortunately also means carry more fuel and there’s points of diminishing returns where you’re spending far too much fuel just to get yourself out of our gravity well. Having a refuelling station or the Moon (or, even better, constructing and launch payloads from there) would mean that we would put larger payloads into space and then push them to the outer reaches of the solar system without having to waste as much fuel to get ourselves out of Earth’s gravitational influence.
Of course seeing this kind of technology implemented is some ways off as it seems like NASA’s next target will be a flag planting mission on Mars. Such technology would be quite applicable to Mars as well seeing as the soil there has a lot of trapped water (and there’s plentiful water ice pretty much everywhere but the equatorial region) but it’d be far more valuable if it was implemented on the moon. In either case I believe this is foundational technology that will be pivotal in humanity pushing itself to the far reaches of our own solar system and, maybe one day, beyond.
Mars doesn’t have much of an atmosphere and the little it does have is rather hostile to life, being composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide with only small percentages of other gasses detectable. Due to the freezing temperatures that grip it constantly -60°C in summer and -125°C in winter a lot of this carbon dioxide ends up in its solid form, usually buried in the permafrost. Last year NASA even confirmed that Mars experiences dry snow a phenomena where frozen carbon dioxide falls to the surface in the form of snow not unlike the water based version we have on Earth. These are all mightily cool in their own regard but there was one particular interaction that came to my attention recently that’s just so much cooler because I realized I had first seen it for myself in my backyard.
I had heard about these gullies before and had always wondered how the heck they formed. It’s not like Mars is a completely dead planet, we’ve caught crazy things like avalanches happening on it, but things that look like they require surface water (or some other liquid) in order to create them are usually out of the question (at least for new features anyway). They’re even reminiscent of the sailing stones in Death Valley, although we’ve probably solved that mystery, but the lack of something at the end of them was the thing that was really puzzling.
Where I saw this in my backyard was a chance encounter with a couple blocks of dry ice that came with a delivery of frozen meals. They weren’t as big as the blocks in the movie above, although you can get them pretty easily if you know where to look, but of course the science nerd in my wife and I couldn’t resist playing with them in the kid pool we had set up. The result wasn’t exactly surprising since we’ve all seen this kind of stuff before but it was rather interesting to see the same principles at work on Earth just as they are on Mars.
The effect isn’t nearly as dramatic but you can definitely see the same carbon dioxide cushion at work which makes the block appear to glide on the surface rather than bobbing in it like water ice does. Another cool thing (which I didn’t show in the video) is when it’s placed just below the surface that same cushion will actually propel it straight to the bottom where it will pin itself and bubble like crazy until it’s all melted away.
I’d recommend doing this for yourself as it’s one thing to see it in a video and a completely different thing altogether to play around with it. Of course there’s a whole host of other things you can do, some which I’d probably not recommend (anything that involves a pressure vessel contains a certain amount of danger), but just watching it interact with other things is pretty satisfying.
Bar our own planet Mars is by far the most studied planet in the solar system. Despite the fact that almost half the missions sent to Mars have ended in disaster we’ve still managed to do a whole lot of science there and our most recent mission, the Curiosity rover, has managed to capture the attention of millions worldwide. The next logical step would then be to send ourselves over there as whilst robotic explorers are great at specific tasks there’s a whole host of other things we could do if we had a few pairs of boots over there. Such a mission has been on everyone’s minds ever since we first set foot on the Moon over 4 decades ago but progress towards achieving it has been slow, verging on non-existent.
This is not to say that there isn’t interest in doing this. NASA currently has a mandate set by the Obama government to reach Mars by 2030 a goal which they’re actively working towards with the Space Launch System. SpaceX has also expressed a keen interest in doing something similar, albeit without help from NASA, in a much more aggressive time frame. Russia has also alluded to a revamp in their space program, primarily aimed at modernizing their current fleet, which could see them establishing a moon base and possibly flying a mission to Mars. However none of these have created the stir that the fully private Mars One mission and that’s probably for good reason.
For the uninitiated Mars One is a non-profit organisation that has the extremely ambitious goal of landing 4 people on the surface of Mars by 2023. They believe they can do this at a total cost of about $6 billion for the first 4 ($4 billion for the second lot) and plan to raise a chunk of that change through making a reality TV show based around the recruitment process. This is where it gets interesting/controversial as the application process is open to anyone and has already garnered 78,000 applications from around the world. In case you’re wondering no, I’m not one of them because I’m quite sceptical that they, or anyone really, could pull off this feat with the budget they’re claiming. I’d do a detailed breakdown of why this is so but I came across this article this morning that does a far better job of explaining it than I’d do.
At the same time Buzz Aldrin has just released his new book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration which is the culmination of his many decades of experience and ideas for getting us humans to our red sister. Whilst I haven’t had a chance to read it I do know of many of the things he’ll be discussing in it (like the Aldrin Cycler) and they’re solid, realistic goals that could be achieved by NASA in the time frames he sets out. If you’re doubting his credentials Buzz has a Phd in astronautics and has done a lot of work for NASA that’s still in use today. Whether or not NASA, or any other space faring nation for that matter, takes his advice under wing will remain to be seen but I’m sure the book will make great reading regardless.
All that being said I do get the feeling that we’re starting to see the beginnings of a mini-space race, one that’s taking place between the private space industry and the super power governments of the world. It’s anyone’s guess who will emerge the victor from this but I’m just thankful that there are multiple entities all driving towards the same goal as the more players we have in the field the more likely it is to happen. I’m sceptical that we’ll see humans on Mars within the next decade but we’re likely to push the boundaries of human exploration further than has ever been done before, fixing us firmly on a path to our celestial sister.
I’ll just put this here, a sunset on Mars as seen by the Curiosity rover:
I had one of those moments watching this video where I just considered the chain of events that led up to me being able to see this. There’s a robot on another planet, several million kilometers away, that’s beaming pictures back to Earth. Those pictures were then made available to the public via a vast, interconnected network that spans the entire globe. One person on that network decided to collate them into a video and make that available via said network. I then, using commodity hardware that anyone can purchase, was able to view that video. The chain of events leading up to that point seem so improbable when you look at as a completed system but they all exist and are all products of human innovation.
Isn’t that just mind blowingly awesome?
Us PC gamers are always slightly wary of ports. The reasoning behind it is twofold, primarily stemming from the fact that many ports are rush jobs, leaving us stuck with interfaces that were obviously designed for another platform and failing to take advantage of our PC hardware. It’s also partly due to our slight bruised pride from no longer being the platform any more and the issues with ports just seem to be yet another strike against us. Strangely enough though I’ve found ports from the portable market, mostly from iOS and Android, have actually been quite good with Galaxy on Fire 2 genuinely surprising me with how well it translated to the PC platform. Waking Mars is another title that found its fame on the mobile market and now, thanks to Steam’s Greenlight project, has found its way onto the PC.
Waking Mars is set in the not too distant future of 2093 where a team of scientists, including you playing as Liang, have been sent to investigate some of the caves that were discovered on Mars. You’re not going in blind however as some time before your team sent a robot, named OCTO (presumably because it had 8 legs), down to investigate and the pictures it sent back indicated there was life down there. However shortly after sending those pictures communications were lost and whilst his recovery wasn’t a prime directive it did necessitate the need to go down and investigate these life forms further and discover a whole new world that has been lurking underneath Mar’s surface for an eternity.
Unlike most of the adventure/puzzle/point and click adventures I review on here Waking Mars isn’t done in pixel art fashion. Rather its done in a hand drawn style, one that’s very familiar but I can’t place my finger on where I’ve seen it before. Whilst the animation is a bit wonky at times, for both your character and some of the NPCs in the world, it’s still quite passable. The colour palettes are also quite bright and varied which helps to make sure that you don’t get visual fatigue looking at the same sodden brown landscape for hours on end.
The core game of Waking Mars is a cross between exploration and puzzle solving. Primarily your aim is to increase the “biomass” of each section by making the various creatures and plants reproduce in the little section you’re currently in. Initially this just starts of with you planting seeds and watering them (which then makes them produce more seeds) but it grows into a complex puzzle of what you should plant where and managing the different types of soil in order to make sure you can produce the required amount of biomass. Once you reach the required level the door to the next level will open up, allowing you to dive deeper into the cave.
As far as puzzle mechanics go its pretty novel especially when you get further along when there are certain plants that will kill other plants which also spread voraciously if not kept under control. Each room obviously has an intended solution, one that if done properly will see you complete it with a minimum of fuss and waiting. This can be something of a blessing or a curse as early on you don’t have the right tools to undo your mistakes. Thankfully up until a certain point all the puzzles are designed to not block you until you get to a stage where you can generate any number of the right seeds you need, as shown below.
This particular level also demonstrates the potential for emergent game play mechanics that can be lovingly exploited should you have the time to do so. In this particular area I had what I called a Yellow Seed Reactor (the ones that can grow in the acidic ground) where regular green seeds seemed to collect. Also in the same area was a couple of those life forms that eat the green seeds to reproduce and since the seeds will keep coming as long as I don’t pick them up they had a near infinite supply of food with which to reproduce. In the same area there was also one of the acidic plants that reproduces when it eats one of those little things so whenever I needed a couple of those seeds I’d simply travel back there and wait.
Indeed the way I completed that level was by simply sitting there and watching the reactor in progress as there really is no limit to the amount of times those little buggers can reproduce. It can also backfire horribly on you as they run away when you get near them and the collision detection gets a bit wonky when there’s 100 of them together, usually resulting in a mass suicide that drops hundreds of biomass in a second. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was hilarious though because seeing them all explode out only to fall over and die is pretty bloody funny.
Past a certain point however the puzzles start to feel very samey as you’re just repeating the same motions over and over again. Once you’re in the big chamber you have pretty much unlimited access to all the seeds you need which makes most of the harder puzzles moot but at the same time it also means you’re forever trucking back and forth between locations in order to get the right materials ready in order to progress through. This might not have been as much of a problem if I was playing it on my smart phone since I’d only be playing it for 10~20 mins at a time (and its broken up perfectly for that) but sitting down and playing it for a couple hours means the repetition gets to you and doesn’t make for compelling game play.
The story is also semi-interesting although it feels like it was lacking any direction. Your motives seem to wander from investigation to getting back to base camp to investigating random signals at different points on the map, all without a clear sense of direction. There’s heaps of additional objectives to do but there’s no driving force, either in upgrades or in terms of the story, to push you to do them. Again this feels like an artefact of its mobile origins where it was designed to be picked up and played for a bit and then put down again until the next session.
Waking Mars is fun and novel, exploring an idea that all my fellow space nuts would love to be true. The core game mechanic is certainly refreshing after all the exploration/puzzler games I’ve played of late but after a while it starts to look all the same. The so-so story that has troubles with direction and pacing doesn’t help this either but that doesn’t stop Waking Mars from being a game that’s worth a look in. I’d probably recommend it on Android or iOS as it seems to be well designed for that and whilst it doesn’t translate badly to PC I still think you’d have a better time elsewhere.
Waking Mars is available on Android, iOS and PC right now for $4.99, $4.99 and $9.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 3 hours played and 47% of the achievements unlocked.
New scientific discoveries get me excited, they really do. After discovering the awesome Science Daily I found myself losing hours in research papers that show cased everything from new discoveries with great potential to good old fashioned applications of science that were already producing benefits for everyone involved. Of course it gets a whole lot more exciting when that science is being conducted on an entirely different planet so you can imagine my excitement when I heard that Curiosity had discovered something amazing, something that had could have been “history in the making”.
It’s one thing for space and science nuts like me to get excited about these kinds of things, we usually know what to expect and the confirmation of it is what gets us all giddy, but its another thing entirely for the rest of the world to start getting excited about it. You see what started out as a couple posts on my feed reader with a couple scientists on the Curiosity team eventually mutated into dozens and when I saw that Australian TV programs were covering it I knew that it had gotten out of hand. It’s not that this was wholly unexpected, the public interest in Curosity has been the highest I’ve seen since the Spirit and Opportunity first touched down on Mars, but I knew that this fever pitch over the potential ground breaking news would inevitably lead to public disappointment no matter how significant the find was.
To put it in perspective Curiosity has a very distinct set of capabilities, most of them targeted towards imaging and the study of the composition of the things it comes across. Much of the speculation I read about Curiosity’s find centred around the idea that it had detected life in some form or another which would truly be earth shattering news. However Curiosity just isn’t set up to do that in the way most people think it is as its microscopes are simply not capable of imaging microbes directly. The only way it could detect signs of life would be through the on-board laboratory using its mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph and laser spectrometer and even then it would only detect organic compounds (like methane) which is a good, but not certain, indication of life.
Unfortunately whilst the scientists had done their best to try and down play what the result might actually be the damage has been done as the public’s expectations are wildly out of alignment with what it could actually be. It’s annoying as it doesn’t help the image of the greater scientific community when things like this happen and it’s unfortunately become a semi-regular occurrence. I can really blame the scientists for this one, they really are working on a historic mission that will further our understanding of Mars and many other things, but care has to be taken to avoid these kinds of situations in the future. Hopefully the media will also refrain from sensationalising science to the point where the story no longer matches the reality, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
For what its worth though I’m still looking forward to whatever it is they found out we’re still only in the beginning of Curiosity’s mission, meaning there’s plenty more science to be done and many more discoveries to be had. Whilst they might not be the amazing things that the media might have speculated them to be they will still be exciting for the scientific community and will undoubtedly further our understanding in many different areas. Hopefully this will be the only PR debacle of Curiosity’s mission as I’d hate to have to write a follow up post.
I usually reserve these kinds of things for a quick tweet or Facebook post but I figured it was time I actually explained the creation of these particular videos. Shown below for your viewing pleasure is yet another Curiosity descent video that makes for some incredible watching:
For starters the first thing I’ll let you in on is that all the sound you hear in this video is 100% fake as Curiosity does not have a microphone on board. That may seem strange, I mean what camera that can take video doesn’t have one, but they’ve launched craft to Mars with microphones before (the Mars Polar Lander was one, although it was tragically lost, with the Phoenix Lander being one that actually made it) and the recordings made back then weren’t particularly interesting. Most of the noise that they recorded was akin to static and really didn’t have much use scientifically so future Mars craft like Curiosity don’t carry them so they can use the payload space for more experiments. Additionally the actual sound would probably be a lot more harsh (ever heard a microphone in high wind?) as at this stage Curiosity was rocketing towards Mars at a pretty decent rate.
The original video, shown here, is based off the images from the MARDI camera that’s on the bottom of the rover specifically for this purpose. Now I’ve heard differing reports as to what the actual frame rate was as the original video says it’s somewhere on the order of 2 FPS (297 images over 150 seconds) but most are quote as saying its 4FPS. The imager itself is capable of doing up to 10FPS but I don’t believe it was for this particular video. How then, you might be wondering, do they manage to get something like 20 FPS like the video does above? Well the original video is probably the best candidate for something called Video Interpolation (or inbetweening as its usually referred to).
In essence the additional frames are generated from the frames either side of it and the algorithms are essentially guessing what’s going to come next. For the MARDI images this works quite well as the amount of change between frames is quite low and thus the interpolation between frames looks quite good. Most of the better ones of these also have a lot of hand work with them as well to smooth out some things (like the heat shield falling motion). If there’s a lot of action between frames you tend to get smudging which you can actually see hints of in the video (look at the landscape shifting about as it gets closer). It works on any kind of video too and a lot of enterprising YouTubers use it in order to get that slow motion effect without having to spend the untold thousands on high speed video cameras.
I find the videos interesting both because of what they are (technical achievements in both their creation and interpolation) and what they represent to us as species. The response to the Curiosity videos has been nothing short of amazing and it makes me so happy to see so many being inspired by it. It’s things like this that spur on the next generation to become the kinds of people capable of making things like this and it never fails to impress me time and time again.
Whilst scientists and engineers aren’t the most superstitious of people emergent, inexplicable patterns can still make them uneasy in much the same way. The Mars Curse is one such pattern that has seen half of the missions that were destined for our red sister fail in some way, either in transport or shortly after arriving at their destination. You can then imagine the tension that the Mars Science Laboratory (commonly known as the Curiosity rover) team experienced as they started to make their final approach to Mars, especially considering how complicated their landing had to be. Yesterday saw the rover touch down safely on the Martian surface, much to the joy of everyone involved and those of us who were watching on.
For the first couple of days Curiosity is going to be spending most of its time validating systems and ensuring that communications back to Earth are stable. For those of you who were watching the live feed those first few images we saw came via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the very same orbiter that’s responsible for relaying all the data from them previous generation of Mars rovers. Curiosity has the capability to deliver a lot more data than those two little rovers combined and whilst Odyssey could relay that back it’s much more advantageous to use the higher bandwidth connection on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter even if it has to cache the data before sending it (hence why the MRO didn’t beam the first pictures back, it would’ve taken too long).
All of the pictures we’ve seen so far have been from underneath the rover and that’s primarily due to the system verification that’s taking place. The images come from the hazard cameras mounted on the underside of Curiosity and traditionally they’ll be used to identify potential obstacles so that the rover can navigate around them. This is why they’re not colour nor particularly high resolution but the good news is that Curiosity has probably the most impressive imaging hardware of any rover to date just waiting to be turned on. Probably the most exciting part about Curiosity’s main camera is the fact that it will be able to capture true colour images, something that past rovers have had to fudge with coloured filters and post processing (which get close, but aren’t true to life).
Curiosity’s mission is to investigate Mar’s past and see how conducive to life it might have been. It’s not directly looking for life on Mars, that kind of mission would require a whole other set of dedicated tools, but what it’s looking for are what we believe are the precursors for life as we know it. Additionally Curiosity will asses Mars’ current and past meteorological conditions, both for pure scientific reasons and also to provide information to possible future manned missions to Mars, something which SpaceX has expressed a keen interest in accomplishing within the next decade. Considering the size of the total payload, almost 900KG, I’m sure it will have no trouble accomplishing its primary mission and quite possibly much more thereafter.
Curiosity’s power source is a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator that’s quite capable of powering the rover for its planned 1 Martian year mission. Now whilst it might not have the solar panels of its predecessors its internal generator is good for 14 years at up to 80% of its peak power production meaning that Curiosity could well give Spirit and Opportunity a run for their money in terms of longevity. Considering just how many instruments are aboard this rover I can see an extended mission proving extremely valuable both in scientific terms as well as becoming the next symbol of NASA’s prowess when it comes to building amazing machines.
A friend of mine asked me this morning if I still had a smile on my face courtesy of NASA and in all honesty I did. I shed a tear when I heard the words “touch down” and shared in the revelry that went on in the Mission Support Area via the NASA TV live feed and just writing that sentence out was enough to bring back the feeling of excitement and joy I felt back then. Curiosity’s mission has only just begun but I can’t help but feel that its been a major success for all involved and I eagerly look forward to everything that this giant rover has to bring us.
It’s a great time for science, space and humanity.
Ah SpaceX, the one company that I simply can’t get tired of talking about. I think it’s because they’re just so different from the traditional way of launching things into space. Where the current players lavish billions of dollars and thousands of people at single projects SpaceX works on a skeleton crew and a shoe string budget. Where launch issues would cause others to delay by a day or more SpaceX can turn everything around in under an hour. They really are the embodiment of the start up thrust into the world of launching things into space and the entire industry is better off for having them around.
Last week saw SpaceX celebrate their 10th birthday. Now this isn’t news to many of us but it does put into perspective the kind of work these guys have been doing and how long they’ve been doing it for. In 10 years they’ve managed to design, build and successfully launch 2 different rocket systems, one of which has been launched multiple times. They’ve secured contracts with NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and, should they be able to do that, they’ll push the envelope even further by being the first private space company to deliver astronauts to there as well.
The last week has also seen a swath of announcements from the now decade old space company. After several delays from NASA there’s finally a solid date for the first dock of one of their Dragon capsules, set for April 30th. The original (rather optimistic date) was in November last year but this time around it seems like all systems are go for this launch date. The launch window is small, only 4 days by my count, but with SpaceX’s track record of rapid fixes on launch days this window should be more than enough for them to get the Dragon capsule off the ground and on the way to the ISS.
SpaceX has also begun showing off the interior of the manned version of the Dragon capsule that can seat up to 7 astronauts at a time. For a capsule craft that’s pretty impressive as the Space Shuttle was only capable of carrying 1 more (albeit with a payload over 4 times that of an unmanned Dragon cargo craft) and the Russian Soyuz craft can only fit 3 in, and it’s still quite a squeeze in there. The Dragon by comparison looks to have quite a bit of room to it, indeed it’s quite comparable to the Apollo command module. It’s not specifically designed for a Lunar mission however, but there is another place that the manned Dragon capsule is well suited for.
That place is Mars.
The last, and probably most exciting, piece of news to come out of SpaceX this week is that the CEO Elon Musk has gone on record saying that he’d be able to do a round trip to Mars for around $500,000. The actual specifics of how they’ll achieve this are remaining a secret for now but Musk alluded to the fact that he has a plan for being able to refuel the craft on Mars, saving a major cost of having to truck all the fuel over there along with the payload. Whether he plans to do this with multiple launches (like launching another dragon ahead of them with the required fuel), some kind of fuel production plant on Mars or something else entirely though remains to be seen. The idea of doing a return trip to the red planet for that much though is really quite exciting and definitely something I’d consider ponying up the cash for.
SpaceX just seems to keep going from strength to strength as time goes on and this year will be no exception. The last 10 years have seen them grow from the start up that no one knew about to the new face of the private space industry. This year is looking to be a milestone year for them and I simply can’t wait to see what else they’ve got in store.