SpaceX plans to head for Mars as soon as 2018

Time to see the Dragon fly.
Time to see the Dragon fly.
Image: SpaceX
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Elon Musk has long said that his dream of colonizing Mars led him to found SpaceX. Now, we have a target date for the first visit.

The company announced today that it would be sending its Dragon spacecraft to Mars as soon as 2018, under a program called “Red Dragon.” Currently, the Dragon’s main mission is flying cargo to the International Space Station; the company is also developing a second version of the craft to carry astronauts into space. The new version is the one that will go to Mars.

The Mars mission, which will take about six months,  is intended to give the company data about landing heavy payloads on Mars with rocket engines—a necessity for human colonization. Those experiences are intended to provide details for the company’s “colonization architecture,” which it will reveal later this year.

Sources at SpaceX say that the Dragons will fly on the Falcon Heavy, a yet-to-be unveiled rocket that can be roughly described as three of its Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. The company intends to test the rocket for the first time in the fall of 2016, following a hold-up caused by a failed mission in 2015. Given the long history of delays at SpaceX and in the aerospace industry more generally, the 2018 target date should be taken with a grain of salt.

Interestingly, a SpaceX source says there will be cargo in the Dragon in addition to the sensors needed to gather data about the craft’s journey and performance. Will it be the greenhouse garden that Musk wanted to send to Mars back in 2002, when he first conceived of the company?