As of March 2014[update], a study for a potential 2021 Red Dragon mission shows that the commercial-capsule mission architecture could offer a low-cost way for NASA to achieve Mars sample return and bring Mars rocks back to Earth for study. Landing up to 2 tonnes (4,400 lb) on the Martian surface—more than twice the mass of any previous craft—it is projected that samples collected from the 2-meter drill would be launched to a low-Mars orbit where another spacecraft would pick up the samples and return them to Earth.
NASA's Ames Research Center is working with the private spaceflight firm SpaceX to plan a mission that would search for evidence of life on Mars (biosignatures), past or present. The 3.6-meter (12 ft) diameter Dragon module offers an interior volume of 7 cubic metres (250 cu ft) for up to 1 tonne (2,200 lb) of instruments. A variant called Red Dragon, would drill about 1.0 metre (3.3 ft) underground in an effort to sample reservoirs of water ice known to exist in the shallow subsurface. The mission cost is projected to be less than US$400 million, plus $150 million to $190 million for a launch vehicle and lander. SpaceX is currently planning the first Falcon Heavy rocket launch for early 2015, and quotes launch cost at $128 million.
The feasibility of a Dragon-derived Mars lander for scientific and human-precursor investigation is being studied by NASA's Ames Research Center. SpaceX's Dragon capsule is being developed to ferry cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station. A slightly modified version of the crewed Dragon capsule could be used for payload transport to Mars, and would be a precursor to the ambitious long-term plans of sending a manned mission to Mars.
Because of its design, a Dragon capsule may perform all the necessary entry, descent and landing (EDL) functions in order to deliver payloads of 1 tonne (2,200 lb) or more to the Martian surface without using a parachute; the use of parachutes is not feasible without significant vehicle modifications. It is calculated that the capsule's own drag may slow it sufficiently for the remainder of descent to be within the SuperDraco retro-propulsion thrusters. This approach should make it possible to land the capsule at much higher Martian elevations than could be done if a parachute was used, and with 10 km (6.2 mi) landing accuracy. The engineering team continues developing options for payload integration with the Dragon capsule. Potential landing sites would be polar or mid-latitude sites with proven near-surface ice.
The Red Dragon capsule would be equipped with the tools needed to return samples gathered on Mars, including a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV), and hardware to transfer a sample collected in a previously landed rover mission, such as NASA’s planned Mars 2020 rover, to the ERV.
^ abcdefgh"Red Dragon"(PDF), Feasibility of a Dragon-derived Mars lander for scientific and human-precursor investigations(PDF)|format= requires |url= (help), 8m.net, October 31, 2011, retrieved 14 May 2012
^Svitak, Amy (2014-03-10). "SpaceX Says Falcon 9 To Compete For EELV This Year". Aviation Week. Retrieved 2014-03-11. We need to find three additional cores that we could produce, send them through testing and then fly without disrupting our launch manifest,' Musk says. 'I'm hopeful we'll have Falcon Heavy cores produced approximately around the end of the year. But just to get through test and qualification, I think it's probably going to be sometime early next year when we launch.'