How Elon Musk plans to get us to Mars

If one planet is good, then surely two is better! Elon Musk has big plans for how to get the human race making Mars our home away from home.

In his recently published paper, a summary of his presentation at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, September 2016, Elon Musk, (CEO of SpaceX), sees two possible paths for the future of humanity:

Humans either stay on Earth forever and are destroyed by some inevitable extinction event or we become a multi-planetary species and improve the lifespan of our species. He sees the latter as the better option and Mars as the target.

Elon Musk sees Mars as a possible new home for the human species
Our planetary neighbour might one day be our species’ saviour, according to Elon Musk.

Why make Mars our destination?

Elon sees Mars as the most viable as Venus boasts an extremely high pressure, acidic environment while Mercury is too close to the sun to be habitable and all the other planets, or even Jupiter’s moons, are too far from the sun and also, much too far to reach anytime soon. The moon is also much more problematic than Mars, with its relative lack of space, atmosphere or natural resources. Mars also has a 24.5 hour day, more manageable than 656 hours on the moon.

Mars is very similar to Earth, with slightly less sunlight and an atmosphere which could be modified for growing plants.

How do we actually get there?

Elon states that while a lot of work and study have been done to determine how we could explore Mars and what could be expected there, right now there isn’t a system in place to allow those who want to go to Mars to actually do it. Elon estimates the cost of sending people to Mars to be at least 10 billion dollars, a number which he feels negates any possibility of creating a self-sustaining settlement on the planet.

Ideally, the cost of traveling to Mars would be reduced to no more than the typical price of buying a house in the United States and feels that if this could be brought about, then creating a Martian civilisation would become a near certainty.

Space Shuttle

The goal, in effect, is to create a situation where enough people who might want to go to Mars could actually afford to do it. This is a huge reduction in cost; five million percent, in fact. Musk identifies four criteria to make such a reduction possible:

Ensuring that all of the transport equipment to and from Mars is fully reusable, in contrast with current space vehicles which are frequently made only for single trips.

Fueling and stocking spacecraft in orbit. This would reduce the fuel requirements for leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and, once free of the planet’s gravity, the spacecraft would be capable of carrying much more. Musk believes that this alone could allow a 500% reduction in the cost per person.

Creating the means to produce fuel on Mars. If settlers on Mars were able to create the fuel for spacecraft to make the return journey to Earth, this would be the best way to ensure the full use of resources, while reducing the payload any spacecraft would have to carry for each leg of the journey. As it happens, the chemical makeup of Mars’ atmosphere, along with H2O and CO2 found in the planet’s ice, are conducive for producing both methane and oxygen, so Musk maintains that this is viable.

Using the correct type of rocket fuel. Musk identifies three types of fuel which could conceivably be used for such journeys. However, he eliminates kerosene based fuel for being too expensive as well as difficult to produce from Mars. He also rules out hydrogen based fuel for the extreme sensitivity of the substance in its required liquid form and the huge expense involved. As such, he and his colleagues at SpaceX believe that a methane-based fuel is the clear winner.

The Future

Musk almost makes it sound simple, but the process is far from ready. Musk and his team have been working steadily on the details for everything from designing incredibly efficient new rocket engines, called Raptors, to planning how settlers could go about creating a workable fuel production plant on Mars.

Mars Earth

Musk predicts that it will be years before they’re ready to start trying out their rockets for the proposed journeys to Mars. Even so, he’s confident that once they’ve achieved that much, they’ll have a system in place for travelling to, if not colonising, the other planets in our solar system. “[You need to have perfected] the rocket booster, the spaceship, the tanker and the propellant plant, and the in situ propellant production. If you have all four of these elements, you can go anywhere in the solar system by planet hopping or moon hopping.”

Elon Musk’s original talk on the matter can be seen in its (lengthy) entirety here:

Ronan Daly

Ronan Daly is a staff writer for My Good Planet who specialises in Technology and Science. With a Masters Degree in English, and over a decade's experience as a teacher and writer, Ronan has brought a breezy, learned style to My Good Planet, making occasionally complex material accessible and understandable to all.

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