Man at His Best

Elon Musk's Plan to Colonise Mars

Elon Musk has some big plans not only to take humans to Mars, but to establish a permanent colony on the planet.

BY ERIC LIMER | Sep 30, 2016 | Technology

Elon Musk has some big plans not only to take humans to Mars, but to establish a permanent colony on the planet. Musk shared the nitty gritty details yesterday in a keynote speech, titled "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species," that he gave as part of the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

One of the fundamental pillars of Musk's plan is to make it reasonably cheap to get humans to the red planet. By his estimates, sending humans to Mars with traditional tech would cost as much as USD10 billion per person, a price tag that makes creating a self-sustaining colony something reserved to science fiction. But Musk, being the boundary pusher he is, has a different ticket price in mind: The median price of a house in the United States. That is, just a few hundred thousand dollars.

The key technological milestones to making this happen, according to Musk, are reusable spacecraft, orbital refuelling, propellant production on Mars, and some really good propellant, specifically "Deep-cryo methalox" or CH402 because it's relatively cheap and can be made right on Mars.

The broad strokes of the plan are pretty simple. A rocket ferries tanker after tanker of rocket fuel up into Earth's orbit and then returns for another load. Meanwhile, the spaceship that will actually travel to Mars waits in orbit, being refuelled and waiting until Earth and Mars are both in the appropriate places for a trip.

When it comes to the Mars ship's capacity, Musk thinks that each ship should hold at least 100 people, such that a city of one million could be established on the red planet in as few as 10,000 ships. Eventually, if SpaceX has its way, dozens of these ships might depart at once, taking as many as thousands of Earthlings to their new Martian home during the once-every-26-month window when the planets align.

One of the key components to this plan is SpaceX's new Raptor engine, which was test fired on Monday. According to Musk, it's has the highest chamber pressure of any engine ever built, and potentially the highest thrust-to-weight engine as well. The Mars-bound ship would operate using 27 of these engines in a cluster, with the seven in the centre able to pivot in order to steer the ship through the void.

When it comes to funding the project, Musk plans to make a lot of Mars money by launching satellites with the Falcon 9, as well as soliciting investments from private individuals and potentially money from the U.S. government. For the time being, however, SpaceX is chiefly concerned with moving forward as quickly as it can right now.

Part of the process of building the first Mars vehicle will be building a carbon fibre fuel tank that can withstand the temperature differentials and pressure required to make a trip between planets. It's the most difficult part of the whole process, according to Musk, which is why SpaceX decided to tackle it first and has already assembled a prototype for testing.

The timeline for all of this is relatively fuzzy, but Musk thinks the earliest possible trip to Mars could be one that would line up with the launch window in 2022. If SpaceX were to miss that, the next chance would be at the end of 2024, and again in early 2027.

Here's SpaceX's dream of what it will look like if everything goes as planned.

Get ready.

From: Popular Mechanics