SpaceX is still a month or so from returning to space after its last rocket exploded (technically, it burned up in a hurry) while being fueled in the lead up to a routine static fire. The private space company is penciling in November as the target date to return to flight. Even though rockets are grounded, the work at SpaceX continues. This morning, Elon Musk showed us what the company is cooking up.
Meet the SpaceX Raptor engine. The blinding exhaust is the first firing of the engine that SpaceX will use to get a spacecraft to Mars. Details on the Raptor engine are slim, but Musk did offer a few on Twitter this morning.
Production Raptor goal is specific impulse of 382 seconds and thrust of 3 MN (~310 metric tons) at 300 bar
Let me translate that. The engine will have a thrust of around 3 million Newtons in the upper atmosphere. That’s about three times the power of the Merlin 1-D (the engines used in the Falcon 9 rocket). Nine Merlin 1-D engines win the fight over gravity as it lifts a Falcon 9 rocket into space. A tenth Merlin 1-D engine powers the second stage of the Falcon 9 to the desired altitude to deploy satellites. A single Merlin 1-D engine has a thrust of 934,000 Newtons in the upper atmosphere.
Arstechnica says the Raptor engine has a slight edge over the space shuttle’s powerful main engine and compares well to Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine (that engine still hasn’t seen a full-scale test).
SpaceX’s Raptor engine represents the means to propel the space company beyond Earth. Elon Musk wants SpaceX to lead the way to Mars. He wants to put boots on the ground on the red planet by 2024.
The first unmanned mission has a targeted launch date in 2018. Optimistic? Extremely. It’s always hard to predict when a mission will launch. Especially a complicated one like a SpaceX’s first mission to Mars. It wouldn’t shock me to see that 2018 date slip to 2020.
Why two years? Launch windows. You can’t just go to Mars when you feel like it. You have to wait for the orbits of Earth and Mars to line up right. That’s why NASA had to push the launch of the InSight lander from 2016 to 2018 after an issue with one of its instruments.
Still, SpaceX’s timeline is at least a decade ahead of NASA’s. Even if the date slips two or even four years, it would be an incredible accomplishment for the company.
Questions still surround the Raptor engine and SpaceX’s plans to get to Mars. How many Raptor engines will be used? What are the exact specs of the Raptor engine? Who will SpaceX partner with (Mars ain’t cheap)? How would astronauts endure the challenges of deep space travel? Answers to at least some of these questions should come during Musk’s speech tomorrow at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.