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SpaceX Red Dragon
An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s Red Dragon capsule on Mars. (Credit: SpaceX)

Update for March 22, 2017: SpaceX has shifted its schedule for the first Red Dragon mission to no earlier than 2020. Company President Gwynne Shotwell referred to the later time frame during a news conference on Feb. 17, 2017. Here’s our original report on the Red Dragon concept:

SpaceX is teasing plans to send robotic Red Dragon capsules to Mars atop its Falcon Heavy rocket, starting as soon as 2018.

The Red Dragon mission concept has been on the agenda for years: Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center have talked about using a modified SpaceX Dragon capsule to grab samples from Mars and bring them back to Earth. Others see the Red Dragon as part of an advanced search for life on the Red Planet.

In the past, actually executing the concept was dependent on funding from NASA. But now it looks as if SpaceX may go ahead with a mission –and put up the money – under the terms of an unfunded Space Act Agreement with NASA. The space agency and SpaceX signed off on a Mars-centric amendment to that agreement just this week.

In a series of tweets sent out today, SpaceX and its billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said the Red Dragon flights would inform the company’s overall architecture for Mars missions. “Details to come,” SpaceX said.

The Falcon Heavy rocket is still under development and is due to make its maiden launch late this year. The Red Dragon would be a modified version of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon (a.k.a. Dragon 2), which is expected to start flying into space next year.

For more than a year, Musk has been working on SpaceX’s mission architecture for Mars trips, including the development of spaceships that would be capable of transporting scores of settlers to Mars. He’s due to unveil the plan in September at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico.

Meanwhile, NASA is still sorting through its plans for Mars exploration. The next mission on NASA’s manifest is the robotic InSight lander, which is currently set for launch in 2018. Then there’ll be a rover in 2020, a telecommunications orbiter in 2022 or so, and further robotic missions leading up to crewed trips in the 2030s.

If SpaceX is as aggressive in its push to Mars as Musk makes it sound, the tempo of Red Planet exploration and settlement may change dramatically between now and then.

Here’s a sequence of artist’s conceptions showing the stages of a potential Red Dragon mission, from SpaceX’s Flickr site:

Falcon Heavy and Red Dragon
A Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off for Mars. (Credit: SpaceX)
Red Dragon in Mars orbit
The Red Dragon capsule reaches Mars orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)
Descent
The capsule makes a fiery descent through the Martian atmosphere. (Credit: SpaceX)
Thruster firing
Red Dragon fires its SuperDraco thrusters to slow the descent. (Credit: SpaceX)
Red Dragon touchdown
The robotic Red Dragon capsule makes a thruster-assisted touchdown on Mars. (Credit: SpaceX)
Red Dragon on Mars
After landing, the Red Dragon is surrounded by Martian vistas. (Credit: SpaceX)
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