Elon Musk plans new Mars rockets bigger than Saturn Vs
Claims endorsement from the Dead Sea Scrolls. No, really
SpaceX, the rocket company founded and bankrolled by famous PayPal nerdwealth icon Elon Musk, has revealed radical plans for a colossal launcher as big as the Saturn Vs which sent men to the Moon - and has also proposed nuclear-powered spaceships to carry astronauts to Mars.
The future of heavy lift?
The plans were discussed by SpaceX honcho Tom Markusic at a conference in America last week, but thus far the company hasn't publicised its ideas widely. At the moment, the only rockets SpaceX offers are its Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 designs.
Falcon 9, which has so far made a single (successful) trial launch, is capable of lifting as much as 10 tonnes into orbit. A planned "Falcon 9 Heavy" might manage better than 30 tonnes.
This is impressive stuff for a company which was set up just eight years ago and which uses all-new, proprietary designs. However, it's not in the league required for ambitious goals such as a manned mission to Mars.
The Apollo missions, travelling only to the relatively nearby Moon, required the use of colossal (and extremely expensive) Saturn V launch stacks able to lob 118 tonnes into Earth orbit. The Constellation programme planned under the Bush administration, intended to first return to the Moon and then travel on to Mars, was supposed to produce a replacement Ares V heavy lifter - though it would have been based on old technology from Apollo and the Shuttle.
But Congress never agreed to supply the funds required for Constellation, and President Obama has largely axed it. He has also cancelled plans for a manned Moon return, though boots on Mars remains a stated US aspiration. The president has said that a new, unspecified heavy lifter will be selected in 2015 for use by American astronauts as they head out first to nearby asteroids and then onward to the red planet.
In April, Obama said:
In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies.
At the time, there were no known hundred-tonne-plus designs based on new technology, though we on the Reg rocket desk did note that Obama had lately been spending time chatting to Elon Musk.
It now seems possible that Musk had given the president a sneak preview of the plans now being discussed by SpaceX among its fellow aerospace folk. These plans can be seen in outline in two PowerPoint presentations given last week by SpaceX's Markusic, downloadable here and here courtesy of the Commercial Space Wiki.
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. ®