SpaceX was in the news again last week after announcing an ambitious date for the first flight to Mars. The private space company has 2018 circled on their calendar for sending the first Dragon capsule to Mars.

Of course, the first flight won’t be manned. But, the first test will lay the groundwork for SpaceX to reach Mars and beyond. SpaceX’s Elon Musk says the Dragon 2 capsule “is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system.”

Carrying people to Mars is out of the question for the Dragon 2. It’s just too small. Musk describes it as about the size of an SUV. A manned trip in a space that small isn’t feasible. But rovers? That can work.

SpaceX recently released more information about the costs and payloads their Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy rockets can handle. Want your own satellite in space? It’s going to cost you.

SpaceX cost and payload

What I want to talk about is the ‘payload to Mars.’ The Falcon 9 can carry 8,860 pounds to Mars while the Falcon Heavy bumps that number to 29,980 pounds.

With manned missions out of the question, rovers are an intriguing possibility. And the current rovers on Mars sit way below the maximum payloads of the Falcon 9. Take the Curiosity rover. It weighs 1,982 pounds. The main issue with a rover like Curiosity isn’t its weight, its the size. The rover measures 10 feet long, 9 feet wide and 7 feet high.

NASA’s other rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, weigh much less. Both of those were just 408 pounds. And they were smaller. While not as sophisticated as Curiosity, both unlocked a wealth of information about the red planet.

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Using Dragon capsules to put rovers on the surface of Mars would be a bit more difficult than tossing them in a capsule. Getting them out once the Dragon landed is its own challenge. Still, if SpaceX could land on Mars safely – using them to ferry rovers to its surface would do away with challenging parachute and sky crane landings.

The more likely scenario? SpaceX succeeds at landing on Mars and uses multiple missions to send supplies ahead of a planned manned mission.

The fact that SpaceX even mentions maximum payloads for a mission to Mars shows how quickly the world of aerospace is changing. In just four years, SpaceX has gone from testing its rockets to delivering critical supplies to the International Space Station. Oh, and it just nailed a barge landing with the first stage of the Falcon 9.

When they say they want to launch to Mars in just two years, it’s hard not to believe they will do it.

‘You could be the first person on Mars.’ Kids have been hearing that for decades. But it finally feels like we are taking major steps towards it becoming a reality.

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