NASA exploring additional cooperation with SpaceX’s Red Dragon mission

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s science and space technology mission directorates are considering ways to cooperate with SpaceX on its Red Dragon mission, including flying payloads on that Mars lander.

In a June 2 interview during the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Broomfield, Colorado, Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator for space technology, said his office has a “wish list” of technology demonstration payloads they would like to fly on Red Dragon or a future SpaceX Mars mission.

“We’ve had very preliminary talks on payloads for the 2018 mission,” he said. However, he added that, with less than 24 months before the launch window for that mission opens, it was unlikely NASA would have such a payload ready to fly in time.

In April, NASA and SpaceX announced they had revised an existing unfunded Space Act Agreement to focus on a planned 2018 Mars lander mission, using a version of the Dragon spacecraft SpaceX is developing to carry crews. Under that agreement, NASA will offer technical support to SpaceX in a number of areas, while SpaceX will provide NASA with data from the entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of Red Dragon’s mission to support NASA’s planning for future Mars missions of its own.

Access to that data remains NASA’s primary interest in Red Dragon. “The SpaceX collaboration really is an EDL demonstration for us,” he said, as the spacecraft demonstrates a concept called supersonic retropropulsion that could enable the landing of spacecraft far heavier than possible with techniques demonstrated on previous missions, including the Mars Science Laboratory.

If NASA is able to fly payloads on Red Dragon, Jurczyk said a particular area of interest is in situ resource utilization (ISRU), testing technologies that can extract water, oxygen, or other resources from the Martian surface or atmosphere. NASA already plans to fly an ISRU experiment on the Mars 2020 mission to convert carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen, but he said NASA is interested in other ISRU studies.

“One would be in situ resource utilization using the water in the soil at Mars to generate potable water and hydrogen and oxygen,” he said. Another experiment would be to create methane, which could be used as rocket fuel.

Jurczyk said other technology demonstration payloads could include systems that could generate 10 kilowatts or more of electrical power on the surface. “We’d like to demonstrate some of those systems on the surface in an operational environment,” he said. “Before we send crew, all of this stuff needs to work on the surface.”

SpaceX says that Red Dragon is the first in a series of uncrewed missions that the company intends to fly in advance of eventual human Mars missions. Speaking at the Code Conference in California June 1, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said he expected SpaceX to send missions to Mars during every launch window, starting in 2018. Those launch windows open every 26 months.

Jurcyzk said that opened the possibility of flying technology demonstration payloads on later SpaceX missions, assuming Red Dragon does launch in 2018 as planned. “They plan on going every 26 months, so we’ll probably in the not-too-distant future engage them on more serious talks for 2020,” he said.

“If they go in 2018, it’s really going to be an EDL demo for us. We won’t have any payloads available,” he said. “But 2020 there’s a possibility.”

The head of NASA’s planetary science division is also considering potential collaboration with SpaceX on Red Dragon. During a June 7 meeting of the planetary science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council, Jim Green heaped praise on SpaceX’s plans, calling them “tremendously exciting.”

Green said his division is part of the NASA team supporting Red Dragon, including participating in a couple of meetings to date. “I’m very interested in that from several aspects,” he said of Red Dragon.

That cooperation includes, at a minimum, coordinating the launch of Red Dragon with NASA’s next Mars lander, Insight, which is also scheduled for launch in the spring of 2018. Both spacecraft will require access to the Deep Space Network, particularly during the critical landing phase of each mission.

While Green didn’t elaborate on any additional prospects for cooperation on Red Dragon, he endorsed potential cooperation with commercial ventures in general, including those planning commercial lunar landers, for flying science payloads.

“We do plan to stay plugged in to those, watch them carefully and, at the right time, enter into the appropriate partnerships,” he said.