- Getty Images/Shutterstock/NASA; illustration by Dave Mosher/Business Insider
To that end, on Tuesday afternoon during a keynote talk at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Musk will unveil his ambitious plans to establish a human settlement on the red planet.
You can watch the event live on YouTube. (There’s also an embedded video player at the end of this post.)
What will Musk reveal?
He’s already teased a powerful new rocket engine – but that is only one small part of what will be a challenging plan to establish a permanent colony on a nearly airless planet that’s typically 140 million miles from Earth.
Here’s what we can expect Musk to talk about, starting at 2:30 p.m. EDT on September 27, 2016.
Kevin Loria, Kelly Dickerson, and Jessica Orwig contributed to this post.
A Mars mission launching in 2018 or 2020.
- SpaceX Photos on Flickr
In April 2016, SpaceX announced that it plans to send a Dragon spacecraft to Mars as soon as 2018. The mission would lay the groundwork for Elon Musk’s goal to land humans on Mars.
“These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars,” SpaceX previously told Business Insider in a statement. “Red Dragon missions to Mars will also help inform the overall Mars colonization architecture that SpaceX will reveal later this year.”
We haven’t heard much about this mission since then, and it’s critical, so it’d be an oversight for Musk not to address it. If the company doesn’t launch in 2018, it will have to wait until 2020 to do so (when Earth and Mars align for a shorter trip).
More details about the Red Dragon spacecraft.
- SpaceX Photo on Flickr
SpaceX has released a few videos of important tests performed on the Dragon 2 capsule – the company will upgrade that design into a Red Dragon version of the spacecraft. Musk says it will have the internal volume of a sport utility vehicle, and based on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon design, it may have up to seven seats.
The first 2018 mission for Red Dragon will be uncrewed, Musk has intimated, and NASA has expressed interest in helping out.
After tearing through the Martian atmosphere, the Red Dragon needs to fire up its eight SuperDraco engines, which will allow it to stabilize and safely touch down on the planet’s surface. Musk has also said the first mission will carry science experiments and rovers.
Still, many details remain. How will the Red Dragon capsule be configured? What exactly does SpaceX plan to deliver to the Martian surface inside of it? How will SpaceX adapt future versions of Red Dragon to carry people?
An update on a launchpad fireball that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket.
- Max Whitaker/Getty Images; USLaunchReport.com; Business Insider
Earlier in 2016, Musk and SpaceX said they’d they reveal their Mars colonization plan in September. As fate would have it, however, a launchpad fireball destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket – the company’s workhorse – and Facebook’s Amos-6 satellite on September 1.
While experts Business Insider spoke with are doubtful SpaceX can return to launching Falcon 9 rockets in November, the company’s accident investigators believe they have identified the cause of the blast – so the situation could improve rapidly.
At stake is $10 billion worth of business, over 70 launches of Falcon 9, and a test launch of the Falcon Heavy: the vehicle that will power the 2018 or 2020 mission and beyond. (The first demonstration launch is planned for the “first quarter of 2017.”)
It would behoove Musk to update the crowd on this accident, since the company’s future rocket will borrow from the design, and delays in the overall launch schedule may also delay SpaceX’s Mars plans.
Additional information about SpaceX’s powerful Raptor engines.
- Elon Musk/Twitter
On Monday morning, just a day ahead of his highly anticipated talk, Musk shared the first engine-firing photo of a powerful rocket engine called Raptor – a motor that’s supposed to propel the company’s rockets to Mars.
The Raptor is about three times more powerful than the Merlin engines used on a Falcon 9 rocket, and it will almost certainly burn methane – not a jet fuel-like kerosene called RP-1, which powers Falcon 9 launches.
Why methane, which isn’t the most powerful or readily available fuel? Mars has methane, which colonists could harvest.
We expect Musk to explain the nature of the Raptor engine, which will go on the bottom of a very big Mars rocket.
How colonists will extract methane on Mars.
In a December podcast interview with SpaceNews, Jeff Thornburg – a former SpaceX propulsion engineer who previously led Raptor’s development – said methane was an affordable and dense fuel that may be readily available for harvest on Mars:
“You’re kind of looking at two things: What does the fuel cost, and if you want to use and develop an exploration architecture for Mars or the solar system, where can you live off the land? … Now that you don’t need to take your propellant to get home as part of your camping gear and you can make it on Mars or you can make it somewhere else, now you can take a whole bunch more stuff.”
But Thornburg left SpaceX in November, according to his LinkedIn profile, and we’ve heard precious little about how SpaceX plans to have colonists harvest a gas that NASA only recently proved the existence of.
It will be essential for Musk to further explain this idea – otherwise, the first Mars colonists may not have the fuel they need to get back home to Earth.
A very, very big rocket.
Back in 2007, Musk reportedly told Wired:
“The ultimate objective is to make humanity a multiplanet species. Thirty years from now, there’ll be a base on the moon and on Mars, and people will be going back and forth on SpaceX rockets.”
Musk further elaborated during a 2015 “Ask me Anything” chat on Reddit that he wanted to launch 100 people and 100 tons of gear – about 25 full-grown elephants’ worth of mass – to the red planet.
To get the job done, he wrote, required a super-heavy lift vehicle, or “Big F***ing Rocket” (BFR). He later renamed the rocket to the “Mars Colonial Transporter” (MCT), and then again to the ITS once Musk says he realized the design could go well beyond Mars.
He’s floated the idea of a launch in 2024 and a landing in 2025. Besides that, the world knows next to nothing about the technical details of the BFR, MCT, ITS, or whatever Musk calls it next.
We should hear more during the IAC talk.
A very, very big spaceship.
In addition to Musk’s very big rocket for Mars, details are sparse about the spaceship that will ride on top and carry 100 people.
Similar to the BFR, Musk has called his dream the “Big F***ing Spaceship”. While he previously said it should carry 100 people, missions and spacecraft leading up to that ambitious goal will inevitably be smaller in scale.
We hope to hear more about the BFS and the complex systems it will require during his keynote.
How Musk’s ‘City on Mars’ will work.
The first astronauts delivered to Mars by SpaceX will need to protect themselves from radiation, safely land, build a habitat, power it, breathe, grow food, recycle water, find fuel to get back home, and more.
These challenges have occupied the minds of space exploration researchers around the world for the better part of 50 years, so we’re curious to see how Musk answers them.
Either way, Musk has no illusions that his “City on Mars”, and life on the red planet generally, will be hunky dory.
In June 2016, he told the Washington Post:
“Hopefully there’s enough people who are like that who are willing to go build the foundation, at great risk, for a Martian city. It’s dangerous and probably people will die – and they’ll know that … And then they’ll pave the way, and ultimately it will be very safe to go to Mars, and it will very comfortable. But that will be many years in the future.”