SpaceX wants to send a Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018

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Apr 27, 2016, 2:56 PM EDT

With NASA still figuring out its plans for a Mars mission in the 2030s, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has announced plans to kickstart that schedule by more than a decade.

SpaceX is planning to send a modified version of its Dragon spacecraft, dubbed Red Dragon, to Mars within the next 2-3 years as a test mission. The Red Dragon uses eight SuperDraco engines that allow the craft to land via propulsive landing. The technique is similar to how SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lands.

The ship would be unmanned, but it would still test out the tech and (hopefully) prove a landing can successfully be done. If they can pull it off, SpaceX would become the first private company to land a spacecraft on an alien planet. It would also put the space firm a step ahead of NASA, which isn’t even planning any test missions for another several years. Musk noted the Dragon is a bit too small for a months-long manned journey, but it can still be used to prove the mission is viable.

As The Verge notes, NASA has previously considered using the Dragon to carry equipment to Mars (much as they do with the ISS resupply missions) and has also proposed using the Dragon to bring samples back to Earth from Mars. The Dragon mission would likely be launched on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which is a more powerful rocket designed for long-range missions.

Musk has always been adamant that his goal is to reach Mars, and this could be the first gigantic step in that direction. Keeping an eventual colony supplied with food and equipment is a critical challenge, and this could solve that problem. Heck, if they can actually get rolling at this accelerated schedule, SpaceX could potentially have a colony in place before NASA even makes it there (since NASA’s plan isn’t exactly oozing with confidence).

(Via SpaceX, Elon Musk)