Scientists have blueprinted a low-cost Mars sample-return mission that would use a souped-up Dragon capsule from SpaceX and the firm’s planned Falcon Heavy rocket to get to the Red Planet by the early 2020s.
The new study demonstrates the viability of the entry, descent and landing of the unmanned Dragon space capsule at Mars. Moreover, the spacecraft’s descent technique would help set the stage for future human missions to the Red Planet, researchers said.
It was an internal study at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
The study group spent a couple of years reviewing the engineering problem. They concluded that a minimally modified Dragon capsule — dubbed “Red Dragon” — could indeed successfully perform an all-propulsive entry, descent and landing on Mars “without violating the laws of physics,” Lemke said.
The Red Dragon capsule is customized to carry the gear needed to return samples gathered on Mars, including a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV); an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV); and hardware to transfer to the ERV a sample collected in a previously landed rover mission, such as NASA’s planned Mars 2020 rover.
In the Red Dragon study, the spacecraft would make a direct entry into the atmosphere of Mars. It would descend to the Red Planet’s surface without a parachute system, using retro propulsion for a precision touchdown. SuperDraco rocket engines would provide this retro propulsion. SpaceX is currently testing these powerful engines for its launch-abort system on the Dragon spacecraft.
The study findings suggest that, at the upper limits of its capability, a Red Dragon could land roughly 2 metric tons of useful payload on Mars. That’s two times more mass than any craft has ever landed on the Red Planet. (The current record was set when a rocket-powered “sky crane” lowered NASA’s 1-ton Curiosity rover to the Martian surface in August 2012.)