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Elon Musk plans new Mars rockets bigger than Saturn Vs

Claims endorsement from the Dead Sea Scrolls. No, really

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Not just new Saturn Vs, but nuclear interplanetary ships - and Martian methane factories. It's all in the Dead Sea Scrolls, you know

In them, Markusic outlines plans for new "Merlin 2" and "Raptor" rocket engines to replace SpaceX's current Merlin 1, which drives both the Falcon 1 and 9 vehicles.

The new engines would be fitted not just to Falcon 9s and Falcon 9 Heavies, but to new and bigger stacks - first a Falcon X able to hurl 38 tonnes into orbit, then a Falcon X Heavy which would offer a Saturn V style 125 tonnes. A Falcon XX is also outlined, able to haul no less than 140 tonnes, though this would forfeit SpaceX's vaunted "engine out" capability - the ability of a SpaceX multi-engined rocket to continue with its mission even if it loses an engine.

The Falcon X and XX designs are comparable in size to a Saturn V, as well as in lift. They would be quite capable of lifting the various modules and spacecraft required to assemble a Mars mission into space - and crucially, according to Musk and his people, do so at a far lower cost.

“Mars is the ultimate goal of SpaceX," Markusic told reporters last week.

It would seem that Boeing and the other aerospace titans who had hoped to build Ares V based on their own previous designs were right to fear that Obama's 2015 heavy-lifter decision might mean billions in revenue going to someone else - plainly, SpaceX intends to offer its Falcon X as a contender. SpaceX's "commercial space" aspirations could also spell joblessness for large numbers of NASA employees, as the old manned rockets and shuttles were supplied by Boeing et al but operated by NASA itself.

As for getting from Earth orbit to the red planet, Markusic discussed further radical plans for interplanetary flight. SpaceX considers that early unmanned cargo missions might best be carried out using "Hall thrusters", highly efficient ion drives, which would use solar power to get as much oomph out of their xenon reaction mass as possible.

These solar "tugs" would be relatively slow, however, taking over a year to make a round trip. Spending such a long time far from a planet is a bad idea for astronauts, as space is full of dangerous radiation.

SpaceX consider that a "nuclear thermal" rocket, able to deliver much higher thrust-to-weight ratio and thus shorter journey time than solar/ion engines, is the answer for manned ships. The company says that these advanced technologies are what NASA should focus on, leaving the relatively humdrum business of launch rockets to commercial endeavour.

As for getting up and down from the Martian surface to Mars orbit, SpaceX are in favour of existing schemes which would see methane produced on the red planet using local atmospheric CO2 in the Sabatier process, probably nuclear powered. Methane-fuelled rockets would then be used to propel Martian lander/lifter craft.

It's all exciting stuff: and there's one further point to note. In one of his presentations, Markusic claims endorsement for SpaceX's plans from no less a source than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Apparently a passage in the ancient documents reads as follows:

Black water shall elevate thy children to the heavens. Purify it. But thou shalt not combine it in a ratio greater than one kikkar to twenty shekkels, nor shalt thou burn rocks. Thus saith the lord.

SpaceX's rockets are powered by rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1), produced by refining - purifying, if you will - crude oil, perhaps describable as "black water".

That's mildly interesting. But the story of Elon Musk's epic battle over the coming decade to put the huge legacy workforces and rocketry of NASA and its established contractors out of business - a task far more difficult, probably, than building the Falcon X heavy - could be more interesting still. ®

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