The 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) ran from September 25th to September 29th, 2017 in Adelaide, Australia, and brought forth a plethora of announcements, presentations and updates from all those involved in space exploration.
one of the more attention-grabbing announcements came – unsurprisingly – from Elon Musk and SpaceX. Already leading the way in private sector launches and launch vehicle reusability, SpaceX has in many respects set the bar for the launch industry as a whole. Musk, meanwhile has raised eyebrows with his longer-term goals, which focus on human missions to Mars and – eventually – the colonisation of the Red Planet. At the September 2016 IAC, he laid the outlines for achieving these goals, and in 2017 he returned to the IAC to offer further updates and insights to the SpaceX approach.
Most surprisingly, given the company’s reliance on it for revenue generation, Musk indicated that he is prepared to phase out all Falcon 9 launch operations, including the yet-to-fly Falcon Heavy, at some point in the near future in order to focus the company on the development and operation of its Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), which Musk still likes to refer to as the BFR (for “Big F***ing Rocket” on account of its overwhelming size).
Fabrication of parts of the first ITS launcher – which is the linchpin for Musk’s Mars ambitions – has been in progress for some time, and SpaceX hope to start on the assembly of the first vehicle in the series in mid-to-late 2018. Musk is now so confident in the vehicle’s development status, he is hoping to have two of the launch vehicles ready to fly cargo missions to Mars during the 2022 launch opportunity – although he emphasised this time frame is “aspirational” rather than a fixed deadline.
This version of the ITS will be slightly scaled-down from the version announced last year, reducing the overall launch height and mass of the vehicle, and the number of main engines it will require – 31 instead of 42. The 2022 mission will have a two-fold purpose: deliver core components required for human operations on Mars to the surface of the planet; located subsurface water / water ice which could be extracted and used to generate oxygen which could be used within the atmosphere of a future base, and as an oxidizer in fuel used by vehicles making the return flight to Earth.
According to Musk, should this mission proceed to plan, it will be followed in 2024 by four craft carrying a mix of equipment, supplies and crews to Mars to commence human exploration of the planet.
All of this is highly ambitious, technically and financially. On the technical front, there are significant issues to be addressed, most notably – but not limited to – that of the radiation threat posed by Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs). As I’ve pointed out in past Space Sunday articles on this subject, solar radiation – often seen as “the” radiation threat – can be managed relatively well, simply because it is generally low-energy radiation.
GCRs, however, are high-energy particles which are much harder to deal with: and there is a lot of them in interplanetary space to deal with. Data from the Mars Science Laboratory’s flight to Mars in 2012 revealed that an unprotected astronaut on a similar flight would face the equivalent radiation dose as having a full-body CAT scan every 5-6 days for six months – definitely not a healthy proposition. There are technologies being developed which can mitigate GCRs, such as such as hydrogenated boron nitride nanotubes (BNNTs), but these are still some way from being available for general use in spacecraft and spacesuit designs. Musk didn’t expand on how SpaceX plan to handle things like GCRs.
He was, however, more forthcoming on how SpaceX would finance the construction and operation of the ITS system. firstly, SpaceX will build up a “stock” of Falcon 9 units which could be used (and re-used) as launchers and components for Falcon Heavy launchers. Secondly, and once available, the revised ITS will be offered as a commercial launch vehicle capable of placing 100 tonnes into low Earth orbit and delivering objects to geostationary orbit or the moon; payloads could be single large items or multiple items. The plan is to use the stock of Falcon boosters through until customers have confidence in the ITS launcher (which will also be reusable) in order to switch over to using it, after which, all Falcon operations will be phased out.
In addition, and with usual Musk showmanship, the entrepreneur indicated further revenue could be obtained by offering sub-orbital aerospace flights between major cities in record time. According to his calculations, he claimed that such flights could ferry customers between Bangkok and Dubai in just 27 minutes, or between Tokyo and Delhi in 30 minutes, using a smaller variant of the ITS.
Quite how these system would work or how the necessary support infrastructure needed to support launch / recovery / refurbishment operations around the globe would be financed was not made clear – nor was the potential cost of tickets.