SpaceX may lose the race to send the first private space mission to Mars. Can.
For years, Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, has talked about making humanity an interplanetary species by sending colonists to Mars one day. The company is building a giant spacecraft, the Starship, with this goal in mind.
But the newer rocket company, Relativity Space, and a small start-up company founded by an engineer who was leading the development of SpaceX’s rocket engines, on Tuesday announced plans to send a specially developed robotic lander to Mars. With optimism — very optimistically — the two companies say they can do so as soon as two and a half years from now, when the positions of Earth and Mars will be rearranged again.
Timothy Ellis, CEO and founder of Relativity, said the way SpaceX aspired to do things “on the edge of madness, ambition and daring” was inspiring.
“These types of goals attract the best people to work on,” Ellis said. “We are bolder than some other companies.”
If a commercial Mars mission is successful, it could open a new market in which corporations, companies and national space agencies can economically send payloads to the Red Planet.
This will be similar to how many companies hope to make money by sending payloads to the Moon to pay customers including NASA, starting later this year. But it will be on a more difficult scale and further away. NASA’s mission to Mars will cost at least half a billion dollars, although that includes sophisticated instruments.
Ellis declined to specify the cost of the mission, but said that the investment money Relativity collected, as well as revenue from contracts it had to launch commercial satellites, might be enough to pay for the Mars mission. Relative, for example, has a deal with OneWeb to take broadband satellites into orbit.
“I think there’s a real chance that we can do that with what we currently have,” Ellis said.
But there are many reasons to be suspicious.
A decade ago, for example, many space companies promised fortunes from asteroid mining, but they stopped working without ever getting close to an asteroid. Even Musk routinely gives overly optimistic predictions about SpaceX’s next milestone. (In 2016, he said the Starship, which at the time was called the Interplanetary Transportation System and was a larger design, would make its first uncrewed flight to Mars by 2022.)
Right now, Ellis lacks Musk’s track record of ultimately making most of his big promises come true.
Relativity has not fired any missiles yet. The first flight of its Terran 1 missile could happen in a few weeks from Cape Canaveral in Florida. But the Mars mission relies on a much larger rocket, the Terran R, which is comparable in size and lift capacity to the Falcon 9, the primary SpaceX rocket that has flown 31 times so far this year. Ellis said that this design is not slated to be released until late 2024 or early 2025.
Impulse Space, a collaborator with Relativity, is a younger company with a lower track record. But its founder, Thomas Muller, is a space veteran and was Employee #1 when Musk started SpaceX in 2002. Muller led the development of the Merlin rocket engines that power Falcon 9 rockets.
Mueller retired from SpaceX in 2020. A year later, Impulse began developing a spacecraft for transport between locations in space.
“I feel like if this isn’t something that is challenging and people think it’s hard and you might not be able to do it, it’s not hard enough,” Mueller said. “We need to do things people think they can’t do.”
Landing on Mars — getting to about 12,000 mph, without burning up in the atmosphere and then stopping on Earth, in one piece, just seven minutes later — falls into the challenge category. Only NASA and China have conducted successful missions on the surface of the Red Planet.
Once launched into space, the Impulse spacecraft detaches from the rocket’s upper stage and heads for a nine-month journey to Mars.
The spacecraft will consist of a cruise stage to handle propulsion and communications during the trip to Mars and a capsule containing a probe. Near Mars, the capsule will separate from the cruise stage and enter the atmosphere for a landing similar to InSight, a NASA spacecraft that launched on Mars in 2018 to measure seismic activity there.
Mueller said the capsule’s size and shape would be the same as that used in the Insight mission. “It’s like using the same kind of heat protection material, the exact same canopy design,” he said. “So we only use what NASA has already analyzed a lot and demonstrated on every mission of this size that has gone to Mars successfully.”
Muller said the probe would be the size of Insight but lighter. The basic configuration will not even include solar panels and will not work for a long time, only until its batteries are exhausted.
Muller said Impulse began speaking with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which runs the InSight mission, this year.
However, a spokesperson for JPL said there hasn’t been much work done between the lab and Impulse so far. “It appears we’ve had some initial discussions with Impulse about this,” said Andrew Good, a company spokesperson. “But while they were seeking to meet with us this year, that meeting has not taken place yet.”
Through a spokesperson at agency headquarters, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Administrator Eric Ianson said that NASA did not have any direct communications with Impulse and that it had no insight into the details of what the company was looking to do.
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.