SpaceX Dragon capsule could be used to return Mars samples to Earth

NASA’s Ames Research Center has developed a draft proposal for a mission that would retrieve soil samples from Mars and deliver them back to Earth. It’s ambitious to be sure, but NASA scientists are optimistic about the so-called “Red Dragon” proposal, so named because it would rely on a modified version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. According to the team, this mission could be feasible in the early 2020s, just in time for NASA’s next Mars rover mission.

Repurposing near-Earth spacecraft for longer voyages is usually a bad idea that never gets past the initial design stages. However, SpaceX designed the Dragon capsule to be highly adaptable. After all, the manned Dragon is essentially the same vessel that’s already in operation as an automated cargo transport.

CEO Elon Musk says the Falcon 9 Heavy is powerful enough to take the fully loaded Dragon to Mars, provided it is not needed for the return trip. A lighter payload could make it all the way to Jupiter. He and SpaceX were not involved in the design of the Red Dragon mission, but Musk has since come out in favor of the basic idea, noting that the Dragon vehicle is designed to land on any surface in the solar system.

red-dragon-mission-concept

Landing on the surface of Mars becomes an increasingly tricky problem as you increase in mass. The atmosphere is too thin for parachutes to do all the work, and delicate components don’t take kindly to hard impacts. The 1-ton Curiosity rover was landed with the aid of a rocket sled, but the Red Dragon would have a 2-ton payload at least. Ames scientists think the Red Dragon can set down without any parachutes, using only the Super Draco engines that are being developed for the emergency abort system on manned Dragon capsules. This would allow Red Dragon to rendezvous with the planned 2020 NASA Mars rover, which will have already collected soil samples for the return mission.

It would be inefficient to try and lift the whole dragon capsule back off the Martian surface, so instead it would carry a small Mars ascent vehicle that would launch into orbit. The lower gravity and thinner atmosphere on Mars make it easier to reach orbit. This craft would line up for an Earth encounter, then release a smaller Earth return vehicle with the samples on board. Once it’s in low-Earth orbit, a second Dragon capsule will be sent up to retrieve it.

Getting samples of Martian soil back to Earth would be the best way to learn about the history and composition of Mars. There’s only so much a rover can do from millions of miles away, and if scientists come up with a new idea for a test, they have to wait for the next mission. Having fresh samples would accelerate things greatly. Maybe we’d finally be able to figure out if Mars has ever supported life.

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