Elon Musk has outlined his company Space X's plans to not only get humans to Mars, but also colonise the Red Planet—and potentially use it as a base to explore the solar system. In a presentation delivered at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Mexico Musk outlined his ambitious proposal, the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS).
The idea is to send teams of 100 people on a huge reusable rocket to the Red Planet—it will be the biggest rocket in history beating NASA's Saturn V. Musk compared his plans to building the Union-Pacific Railroad. Except instead of opening up the frontier of the Western United States it will open up the frontier to the Martian surface.
"The goal of SpaceX is really to build the transport system." said Musk. "And once that transport system is built, then there's a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new, or build the foundations of a new planet."
Musk said he sees two ways forward for humanity, to stay on earth forever and wait for one of the many extinction scenarios to hit us. "The alternative is to become a multi-planetary species," notes Musk, "which I hope you will agree is the right way to go.”
The rocket itself will be designed to carry humans or cargo at the top and at the bottom will feature 42 of SpaceX's new methane-fueled Raptor engines to take it into orbit. Once it drops off its cargo, human or otherwise, on the Martian surface it can then safely return to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida to be used again.
Using these Musk says Space X wants to send many colonizers to Mars to create a permanent city. Musk thinks that with 1,000 ships and 200 people per ship, it would take around 40 to 100 years to realise a self-sustaining civilization on the planet. He even hinted that once this was done, we could use it as a base to explore the rest of the solar system and begin to develop anti-matter spaceships for use in interstellar travel.
A huge barrier to doing all this is the cost, which Musk estimates at around $10 billion. Once it's up and running though one of the ways Musk believes they can generate money is for people to pay for a trip to Mars, a ticket for which Musk believes they could bring down to around $100,000. The trip there would be fun too promises Musk, with zero G games, movies, and a restaurant on board the rocket. Initially Musk estimates the trip would take around 80 days, but thinks that eventually travel time could be cut to around just 30 days.
Methods to bring the cost down include the reusable rockets, possibly refuelling in space to avoid fuel costs on the relaunch in getting into orbit, and using methane fuel to replace traditional rocket fuel. One of the benefits of this is that Musk believes they could, eventually, create the methane for fuel on Mars. It could be synthesized using the planet's subsurface ice along with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Musk's timeline for all this is hugely ambitious too, he wants to launch the first reusable rocket 10 years from now, around 2026 maybe as early as 2023. He's even got a name for it, he wants to call it Heart of Gold, named after the first spacecraft to make use of the Infinite Improbability Drive in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
To kickstart this Musk said SpaceX were hoping to launch a mission to Mars (starting with unmanned Red Dragon missions) in 2018. Any spaceflight to Mars can only be done in a certain window, once every 26 months when Earth and Mars are favourably aligned. From 2018 Musk wants to send a craft there in every available slot.
If it all sounds insanely ambitious, that's because it is. We'll have to wait and see how much of this actually comes to fruition. But at least he's reaching for it. "It's going to cost a lot. And there's a good chance we don't succeed. But we're going to do our best and make as much progress as possible." Musk said.