How Can We Go To Mars?

Elon Musk has a grand plan for getting humanity out of the confines of Earth, setting off to the moon, Mars, and even further reaches of the solar system. Musk has regularly estimated that humans could establish a city on Mars as early as 2050.

As CEO of SpaceX, he has led the development of the Starship. The rocket is designed to refuel and relaunch using liquid hydrogen and methane, unlike the rocket propellant used in the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. That means astronauts will be able to set up refueling depots around the solar system, hopping from planet to planet. Still under development, the Starship could see its first commercial flight as early as 2021.

Many plans for a Mars settlement expect a community in matters of decades. The United Arab Emirates aims for a city of 600,000 by 2117. Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell told Inverse in October that "while the first human mission to land on Mars will likely take place in the next two decades, it will probably be more like 50-100 years before substantial numbers of people have moved to Mars to live in self-sustaining towns." SpaceX is aiming for a much, much faster timeframe, with a series of 10 launches to start a city by 2050.

Here's how it looks:

SpaceX's Mars Plan: 2019 The company is set to hold the first “hop tests” for its Mars-bound Starship this year, seeing if the rocket can jump a few hundred kilometers.

SpaceX has been developing a test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, shipping over 300,000 cubic yards of locally-sourced soil. In July 2018, the firm took shipment of a 95,000-gallon liquid oxygen tank, around the same capacity as 20 tanker trucks. It's also completed a 600-kilowatt solar array and two ground station antennas that may also prove useful for Crew Dragon missions. In October 2018, it took shipment of the final major ground tank system to support the initial flights. CEO Elon Musk previously described these tests as "fly out, turn around, accelerate back real hard and come in hot to test the heat shield because we want to have a highly reusable heat shield that’s capable of absorbing the heat from interplanetary entry velocities.” The tests were originally set to take place in the first few weeks of 2019, but a storm blew over the "hopper" test vehicle. The firm completed its first hop test firing in April, reaching a few centimeters off the ground. More are expected later this year. Assuming all goes well, it's onto the next stage. In January, Musk claimed that the first orbital Starship prototype may arrive as early as June, which could help accelerate testing and move select plans to an earlier stage of the schedule.

SpaceX’s Mars Plan: 2020 As the United States holds its next presidential election, SpaceX will be working on the next stage of Starship tests. This year’s tests cover the booster, as well as high altitude, high-velocity flights. The team is expected to conduct a number of test flights before actually placing anyone on board. An orbital Starship could make its flight debut at this time. SpaceX’s Mars Plan: 2021 The Starship is set to embark on its first commercial flight. Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX vice president of commercial sales, revealed at a conference in Indonesia that the plan is to host the first flight around this time. The Starship’s first voyage could see it send a commercial satellite into space for one of three telecoms firms. That sounds like a job for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, but if all goes well it could prove the Starship’s viability for future missions and help fund its further development. “You could potentially recapture a satellite and bring it down if you wanted to,” Hofeller said. “It’s very similar to the [space] shuttle bay in that regard. So we have this tool, and we are challenging the industry: what would you do with it?” Elon Musk is pushing the boundaries of where we can go and what we can do. Don't miss a beat by signing up for Musk Reads, our weekly newsletter about all things SpaceX, Tesla, and The Boring Company.