SpaceX founder Elon Musk says he’ll unveil “major improvements and some unexpected applications” this week when he updates his plan for sending thousands of settlers to Mars starting in the 2020s.
The update is coming in a talk Musk is giving to the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, set for about 9:30 p.m. PT Thursday (2 p.m. Friday in Adelaide). The IAC’s organizers say the talk will be live-streamed. (Update: SpaceX is providing the live stream at http://www.spacex.com/mars.)
This week’s talk follows up on Musk’s appearance at the IAC last September in Mexico, during which he laid out a detailed plan to develop a new type of monster spaceship and booster for Mars trips, known as the Interplanetary Transport System or ITS.
The spaceship, which was nicknamed the BFS (“Big Freakin’ Spaceship) or Heart of Gold (after the ship from “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), would be designed to carry 100 passengers and cargo to Mars, fuel up on the Red Planet and return to Earth for the next mission. The booster would be similarly reusable.
Since last September, SpaceX has continued work on the methane-fueled Raptor rocket engine and other components needed for the ITS. But Musk has been hinting that the mission architecture would be downsized to make the project more affordable and accommodate other types of missions.
“I think this one’s got a shot of being real on the economic front,” he said in July.
Today, Musk said on Twitter and Instagram that some aspects of the updated design and its applications would be unexpected:
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 25, 2017
Major improvements & some unexpected applications to be unveiled on Friday at @IAC2017 in Australia
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 25, 2017
So what kinds of unexpected applications can we expect? The most reasonable candidates would be missions to the moon and its surroundings, known as cislunar space.
Cislunar missions are expected to become a priority for NASA under the Trump administration. The space agency is already talking up plans for a Deep Space Gateway that would go into lunar orbit and serve as a jumping-off point for robotic missions on the lunar surface as well as crewed flights to Mars and other farther-flung destinations.
United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK, Boeing and Lockheed Martin all have drawn up concepts for deep-space gateways and lunar habitats. Meanwhile, Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is talking with NASA about a “Blue Moon” launch and landing system that could make robotic deliveries to the lunar surface.
SpaceX is likely to be looking for a piece of the action as well. It also has a plan on the books to send paying passengers around the moon by as early as next year (although later is far more likely). Cislunar applications for Musk’s reworked Interplanetary Transport System seem so likely that it’s hard to call them “unexpected.”
Another possibility has to do with SpaceX’s plan to put thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit to provide global internet access. The satellite system — which is being developed at SpaceX’s offices in Redmond, Wash., and may be known as Starlink — would seem to require lots of launches. But it’s not inconceivable that bunches of satellites could be deployed during a single orbital outing for ITS.
Yet another option would involve setting up a more lasting infrastructure for Martian settlement. Lockheed Martin, for example, is due to provide “late breaking news” about its Mars Base Camp concept at the Adelaide IAC meeting. Musk could conceivably lay out a plan that envisions more than mere back-and-forth rides for SpaceX’s future customers.
Lockheed Martin’s deputy project manager for NASA’s Orion deep-space vehicle, Larry Price, says he welcomes SpaceX’s interest in beyond-Earth exploration — a field that he expects NASA to pioneer for commercial follow-up.
“Elon is expanding more into this realm. … It’s all good, it’s everybody getting excited about that possibility and developing where the market could be,” Price told GeekWire last week during a visit to Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash.
The current timetables point to a buildup toward crewed Mars missions within a decade or two. NASA’s plan calls for sending astronauts to Mars and its moons in the mid-2030s. Lockheed Martin says its Mars Base Camp could be launched by 2028. And Musk has talked about starting up SpaceX’s shuttle service to Mars in the mid-2020s.