The key to all endeavors is to move in increments. Space is currently a new frontier for us, and the ability to reach Lower Earth Orbit, and actually fully occupy that realm for 20 continuous years is a feat that many of us never imagined that we would accomplish as humans. The building of the International Space Station alone took us several years in order to accomplish.
Each phase brings its own associated firsts and as a result, there is always something to look forward to. In 2020, we saw the return of space launches from US soil via the endeavours of SpaceX. From the visits to the International Space Station, there will be a phased transition from the Earth to exploring the Moon. In a manner that is much like how the International Space Station orbits the Earth, there is an intention to create a lunar orbiter that is much like the International Space Station, except that it will orbit the Moon. Once we master the ability to be on long duration flights to the Moon, the next phase as a space faring nation will be to reach that glorious red planet known as Mars.
Mars as a location is almost geographically similar to Earth. Studies by Mars rovers have actually indicated some signs of water and even microscopic elements that were possibly life on the planet. From that perspective, we are excited to actually reach the planet and see if we can inhabit the region, in much the same way that we’re inhabiting the Earth now. Getting to Mars is an amazing mission, and it requires advances in science and technology far beyond what we currently have in our possession.
What is key to the advancement of this mission is to actually ensure that in the current phases, we are learning and optimizing. From the SpaceX vision box, is the future of Mars. The company is actually making the effort to test early versions of its Starship vessel, the vessel that will enable sustainable trips to Mars. From Mars, the company will venture on to the Mars missions, which will require longer duration technology, or technology that we can then utilize in order to generate the fuels that we need while we’re out in space. One such technology is the utilization of methane as a fuel. The prevalence of methane and its thermal properties are such that it makes a good fuel for longer duration flights to places like the Moon. Beyond that, we’ll be able to generate methane in situ on the Mars planet itself. Getting to Mars takes nine months, so it will be important to ensure that the vehicle is able to reach the location and actually be able to do so with adequate fuel.
Various prototypes of the Mars bound vehicle will be tested over time. The rocket development process is one that is an iterative one. Anticipated test flights to the red planet are expected to take place across a two year window, with a possibility in 2022 when there’s a perfect alignment of the planets. The 2020 alignment window paved the way for the launch of the Perseverance Rover, which will send information back to Earth that will enable us to understand more about the future visit to the planet.
The grand vision for the trip to Mars involves the utilization of a Super Heavy Booster, that will initiate the process of launching the Starship to Earth orbit. The launched Starship will meet with its pre-launched twin ship that will transfer propellant to the vehicle. The Starship will then navigate its way through to Mars and coordinate its landing. With a successful test flight, crewed flights will then follow, with cargo ships with them. The missions are anticipated to last approximately four months once the Starship lands. The radiation levels on Mars are significantly higher on Mars than on Earth, the duration of the mission will protect the crew.
Aside from the initial visit, the aim on Mars is to establish a sustainable means to actually inhabit the planet. Thoughts of a methane generation facility have been proposed for years, and the grander vision is to be able to generate fuel for the return flight from this activity. The initial activities will be designed to enable this to be so. With so many steps to accomplish the final mission, it will be an amazing accomplishment once they actually fulfil the vision. For those of us in STEM, this is an amazing time.