The NASA concept, called Red Dragon, would be 3.6-meter (12 ft) diameter Dragon module with an interior volume of 7 cubic metres (250 cu ft) for up to 1 tonne (2,200 lb) of Mars-landed payload. The instruments would drill about 1.0 metre (3.3 ft) under ground to sample reservoirs of water ice known to exist in the shallow subsurface. The mission cost was 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 2016.
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 aerodynamic drag may slow it sufficiently for the remainder of descent to be within the capability of the SuperDracoretro-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.
A study of a potential 2021 Red Dragon mission suggested that it could offer a low-cost way for NASA to achieve a Mars sample return for study. The Red Dragon capsule would be equipped with the system 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. ERV would transfer the samples to high Earth orbit, where a separate future mission would pick up the samples and de-orbit to Earth.
^ 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