NASA is looking at SpaceX and their “Red Dragon” as a way to return Mars samples to Earth. What this requires is taking a Dragon space capsule and then modifying it! Perhaps you didn’t notice but NASA has become a lean, mean, fighting machine. Okay, maybe not mean, but NASA is working with its commercial entities and both bring down the costs and pumping up the nation for this wild space adventure we are taking through the galaxy.
Now this is not a mission on the books yet, but merely a study to become a possible plan to maybe translate into a mission if budget allows and some other plan doesn’t blow their socks off. There’s still a question as to whether the joint ESA-NASA plans to tackle a Mars sample return together is still intact. There also was an ESA–Russian agreement and there was no reason why all three countries couldn’t join together on this, but it’s hard to believe recent events won’t have any effect on this. I try to remain somewhat ‘vanilla’ when it comes to politics and really feel that politics should not affect the pursuit of knowledge, but that is in a perfect world. Of course a lot can change between now and 2018 & 2020. (The planned launch dates)
Back to the unplanned, not on the books sample return via ‘Red-Dragon’ NASA wants to analyze some terrain samples from Mars, perchance to answer once and for all if life exists there. Of course this means traveling to Mars and back and also maintaining the samples in a proper container – described in a previous post. (Mars in a Box – November 4th, 2013 and pictured below.)
NASA feels that modifying a SpaceX Dragon capsule into a landing craft is the more cost effective way to get those samples back here to Earth. They have gone so far as to work out in this study that the Red Dragon could land not using a parachute system or even the all to familiar bouncing air bags, but by direct entry in Mar’s atmosphere and descending to the surface using retro propulsion via the SuperDraco rocket engines. Up to 2 metric tons of payload could be landed and would be more then capable of carrying the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV), and the collection container to transfer samples collected.
Obviously once the samples have been safely loaded the Red Dragon would ascend from the Martian surface with some assistance from the Mars Ascent Vehicle and spend the next several months enjoying spaceflight.
Commercial Companies and NASA working together gives me such hope for tomorrow. Neither one can do this alone, at least not in the timeframe desired and with concentrating on all the other missions, but together it less expensive and can give the American people something to really get behind!