Red Dragon (spacecraft)

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Red Dragon
Dragon to Mars (21424800115).jpg
Concept art of a Dragon V2 landing on Mars
Mission type Lander demonstrator; optional sample return
Operator SpaceX
Spacecraft properties
Bus Dragon 2
Manufacturer SpaceX
Launch mass 6.5 t (14,000 lb) plus payload[1][needs update]
Payload mass Up to 1 t (2,200 lb)
Start of mission
Launch date 2018 (Planned)[2]
Rocket Falcon Heavy
Contractor SpaceX
Mars lander
Landing date Planned: 2018

Red Dragon is a planned unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule for low-cost Mars lander missions to be launched using Falcon Heavy rockets. These Mars missions will also be pathfinders for the much larger SpaceX Mars colonization architecture that will be announced in September 2016.[3]

Proposed uses call for a sample return Mars rover to be delivered to the Martian surface while also testing techniques to enter the Martian atmosphere with equipment a human crew could eventually use.[4][1]

The idea, conceived in 2011, was to propose it for funding in 2013 and 2015 as the United States NASA Discovery mission #13 for launch in 2022,[5][6][7] but it was not submitted. On 27 April 2016 SpaceX announced that they will be going forward with the uncrewed mission for a 2018 launch[8] and NASA will be providing technical support.[9]


SpaceX worked with NASA's Ames Research Center in 2011 to produce a feasibility study for a mission that would search for evidence of life on Mars (biosignatures), past or present.[4][1][10] SpaceX's Dragon version 1 capsule is used to ferry cargo, and Dragon 2 is planned to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station in the future. The Red Dragon proposal called for modifications so it could be used to transport payload to Mars,[4] land using retrorockets, and to become a precursor to a human mission to Mars.[6][7]

2011 concept[edit]

The 2011 concept was called Red Dragon, and was conceived to use a modified 3.6-meter (12 ft) diameter Dragon module, with a mass of 6.5 tonnes (14,000 lb) and an interior volume of 7 cubic metres (250 cu ft) for up to 1 tonne (2,200 lb) of Mars-landed payload.[10] The instruments were proposed to drill approximately 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 in 2011 to be less than US$400 million,[6] plus $150 million to $190 million for a launch vehicle and lander.[1][7]

The goals for a NASA-funded mission, as originally proposed by NASA Ames Research Center, were:

Scientific goals[1]
  • Search for evidence of life (biosignatures), past or present
  • Assess subsurface habitability
  • Establish the origin, distribution, and composition of ground ice
  • Understand past climate using ground ice record
Human precursor goals[1]
  • Conduct human-relevant entry, descent and landing (EDL) demonstrations
  • Assess potential hazards in dust, regolith, and ground ice
  • Characterize natural resources
  • Demonstrate access to subsurface resources
  • Conduct in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) demonstration: water extraction and propellant production

2014 concept[edit]

A 2014 study of a potential 2021 NASA-funded Red Dragon mission suggested that it could offer a low-cost way for NASA to achieve a Mars sample return. In the concept, 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.[4][11] ERV would transfer the samples to high Earth orbit, where a separate future mission would pick up the samples and de-orbit to Earth.[4]

NASA never funded either the 2011 nor 2014 concepts.


Over time, the Red Dragon concept has changed but the basic idea has remained: use a modified Dragon capsule to make an initial uncrewed mission to Mars. The launch vehicle became the Falcon Heavy, rather than the Falcon 9 as conceived in the 2011 concept proposal, and the capsule became a Dragon V2 rather than a first-generation Dragon as shown in the 2011 concept.

As of May 2016, SpaceX is planning the initial Falcon Heavy rocket launch for early 2017,[12] and Dragon V2 is scheduled to undergo flight tests in mid to late 2017.[13]

Moreover, the Red Dragon mission has become a privately-funded Mars mission, funded by SpaceX, with the possible sale of mission transportation cargo spots to a variety of commercial and, potentially, government purchasers. NASA has agreed to provide "technical support" only.[14]

Landing demonstrator mission[edit]

On 27 April 2016, SpaceX announced its plan to launch a privately-funded modified Dragon lander to Mars by 2018.[14][15] More details are expected to be released in September 2016.[3]

NASA will also be involved in the mission at the level of technical interchange. In exchange for Martian entry, descent, and landing data from SpaceX, NASA will offer technical support for the Red Dragon mission.[9][15] As of 2016, NASA anticipates spending "on the order of $30 million" of its public budgetary funds for employees and equipment to be used to monitor the mission.[16]

Landing system[edit]

Thanks to its design integrating a robust heat shield and powerful thrusters, a modified Dragon V2 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.[1] 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 SuperDraco retro-propulsion thrusters.[4] 1900 kg of propellant would provide the Δv required for soft landing.[17] This approach should allow the landing of the capsule at much higher Martian elevations than could be done with a parachute, and with 10 km (6.2 mi) landing accuracy.[10] The engineering team continues developing options for payload integration with the Dragon capsule.[7] Potential landing sites would be polar or mid-latitude sites with proven near-surface ice.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Red Dragon" (PDF), Feasibility of a Dragon-derived Mars lander for scientific and human-precursor investigations (PDF),, October 31, 2011, retrieved 14 May 2012 
  2. ^ "SpaceX Is Sending a Red Dragon Spacecraft to Mars in 2018". 27 April 2016. Retrieved 27 April 2016. 
  3. ^ a b Cowing, Keith (28 April 2016). "SpaceX Will Start Going to Mars in 2018". SpaceRef. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f David, Leonard (7 March 2014). "Project 'Red Dragon': Mars Sample-Return Mission Could Launch in 2022 with SpaceX Capsule". Retrieved 8 March 2014. 
  5. ^ Spacex Dragon lander could land on Mars with a mission under the NASA Discovery Program cost cap. 20 June 2014.
  6. ^ a b c Wall, Mike (July 31, 2011). "'Red Dragon' Mission Mulled as Cheap Search for Mars Life". Retrieved 1 May 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c d "NASA ADVISORY COUNCIL (NAC) - Science Committee Report" (PDF). Ames Research Center, NASA. 1 November 2011. Retrieved 1 May 2012. 
  8. ^ SpaceX (April 27, 2016). "Planning to send Dragon to Mars as soon as 2018. Red Dragons will inform overall Mars architecture, details to come". Twitter (Tweet). 
  9. ^ a b Newmann, Dava. "Exploring Together". NASA Official Blog. Retrieved 27 April 2016. 
  10. ^ a b c E. Sklyanskiy, M. R. Grover; A. D. Steltzner & Sherwood (February 2012). "RED DRAGON-MSL HYBRID LANDING ARCHITECTURE FOR 2018" (PDF). Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA. Retrieved 4 July 2012. 
  11. ^ Wall, Mike (10 September 2015). "'Red Dragon' Mars Sample-Return Mission Could Launch by 2022". Retrieved 2015-09-20. 
  12. ^ "Falcon 9 Rocket completes Static Fire Test for next High-Energy Satellite Delivery Mission". Spaceflight 101. 2016-05-25. Retrieved 2016-06-06. 
  13. ^ Grossman, Lisa (28 April 2016). "SpaceX claims it can get to Mars by 2018 – what are its chances?". New Scientist. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  14. ^ a b Davenport, Christian (2016-06-13). "Elon Musk provides new details on his 'mind blowing' mission to Mars". Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-06-14. 
  15. ^ a b Drake, Nadia (April 27, 2016). "SpaceX Plans to Send Spacecraft to Mars in 2018". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  16. ^ "NASA Outlines Mars 'Red Dragon' Deal With SpaceX". AviationWeek. Retrieved 14 May 2016. 
  17. ^ Red Dragon-MSL Hybrid Landing Architecture for 2018 Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration, held June 12–14, 2012 in Houston, Texas. LPI Contribution No. 1679, id.4216

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