SpaceX eyes Mars

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In the notoriously tight-lipped world of commercial spaceflight, every talk by a prominent personality is a newsworthy event. During a brief speech, followed by a lengthy Q&A, Elon Musk, the enigmatic founder of US-based SpaceX, revealed new developments at the company, which is widely considered the frontrunner in the quest for manned commercial spaceflight.

SpaceX has had a good year to date. It has unveiled a new version of its Falcon 9 rocket - which will launch twice the payload of the nearest competitor, at half the cost - and has already begun construction of the specialised pad required to launch it.

After receiving $75 million from NASA to develop a launch abort system, the space agency gave tentative blessing to combining two flights to the International Space Station (ISS), allowing the SpaceX Dragon capsule to both approach and dock with the ISS on the same mission.

spacex falcon 9 rocket, spacex
 © SpaceX

The company is eagerly chasing US Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) certifications that would allow it to launch spy satellites, opening the gateway to budgets far greater than NASA can offer.

But in his speech to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' annual conference in July, Musk cleared up any doubt that Mars is his ultimate objective.

"I think ultimately the thing that is super important in the grand scale of history is "are we on a path to becoming a multiplanet species or not?"," he said.

"If we're not, well that's not a very bright future, we'll simply be hanging out on Earth until some eventual calamity claims us. That's kind of how I'm judging SpaceX, are we helping move things in that direction?

"Our main goal is to establish a means of getting to and from Mars. Our focus is really just: can we establish that transportation link and innovating and iterating to get that better and better," he added.

While Musk has not exactly been quiet about his ambitions, design tweaks to its existing product range have intensified the suggestion that anything other than a mission to Mars would be a stepping-stone.

The Dragon capsule, which is to date the only commercial capsule to reach orbit, was designed with an abort system that mounts rockets on the capsule bottom a placement that could conveniently enable their use as retro-rockets for a planetary landing.

A video released in April depicted a computer-generated image of a Dragon capsule touching down gently on an unspecified reddish planet.

Since being founded in 2002, SpaceX has grown to 1500 employees, with major offices in four states and launch capabilities at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre and Vandenberg air force base in California.

According to an article in the Valley Morning Star newspaper, covering the town of Harlingen, Texas, a space company fitting the description of SpaceX is negotiating to build a spaceport on the Texas coast, which would give SpaceX more flexibility in scheduling launches.

The company declined to comment on the possibility of a third spaceport.

Musk revealed that SpaceX is developing a new, more efficient rocket, but he added: "We want to make sure we have all our ducks in a row before we announce that development, I think that's going to be very exciting."

He noted that "something like that is very important, if you want to take significant amounts of cargo and people to Mars".

In addition to Mars, SpaceX is discussing plans with NASA to send craft 150-200 astronomical units (AU) into space. One AU is the distance from Earth to the sun - Pluto is 29AU distant from Earth at its closest approach.

Another stepping-stone to Mars has been the development of reusable launchers, which could potentially reduce the cost of a launch dramatically.

Currently, Musk said that the rocket propellant used for launches was 0.3% of the total launch costs. A single Falcon 9 costs between $54 million and $59.5 million, according to SpaceX.

Musk's interest in a reusable rocket is well known, but when asked about its progress he responded: "So far it has sucked, really. It is extremely difficult, and there's a reason that nobody has invented a fully reusable rocket before: it is super damn hard."

To build a rocket with sufficient shielding to withstand the pressures and heat of falling into denser atmosphere, Musk said, would mean the rocket would be too heavy to carry significant payloads into orbit.

The recently-retired Space Shuttle - the only reusable spacecraft to fly - used disposable boosters as a first stage.

SpaceX has launched seven Falcon rockets, according to Flightglobal's Ascend SpaceTrak database.

Three of those launches are considered failures, giving a total failure rate of 42.86% to date.