Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter
Yesterday, a mysterious group called the Inspiration Mars Foundation announced vague plans for a “historic journey to Mars and back in 501 days” scheduled for 2018. The group neglected to mention if the trip would be manned, instead directing the public to a press conference scheduled for February 27. But new information reveals that the individuals behind the Inspiration Mars Foundation plan to send two people on a flight to Mars and back—presumably in one piece.
The Inspiration Mars Foundation was formed by millionaire Dennis Tito, 72, the first person to pay for a ticket to the International Space Station. He and his partners will be giving a talk next month at the IEEE Aerospace Conference on “Feasibility Analysis for a Manned Mars Free Return Mission in 2018.” According to the NewSpace Journal, which obtained a copy of the paper the group plans to present at the conference, the Mars mission would use a modified version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which last year made a successful delivery of cargo to the ISS. (Dragon was designed to carry people as well as cargo, but has not yet carried any astronauts into space.) The capsule would venture out to Mars and slingshot back around toward Earth on a 501-day mission. Timing is critical: the orbits of Earth and Mars line up for a small window beginning in January 2018; the next available window for a mission like this is in 2031.
Of course, the mission will not be as simple as shooting two astronauts in the right direction. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be shielding astronauts from the unyielding torrents of radiation found outside Earth’s protective magnetic field. An astronaut would reach a dangerously high radiation dose after a year’s journey; a 501-day mission is nearly 40 percent longer. (Fortunately, the 11-year solar cycle is expected to be near its minimum in 2018.) In addition, the mission would depend on unproven technology such as SpaceX’s Dragon Heavy rocket.
Mission architects from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently detailed in Scientific American an incrementally ambitious plan to send astronauts to asteroids, the moon and Mars, yet such a plan wouldn’t be ready to start launches for at least another decade. Will the Inspiration Mars Foundation beat NASA to our neighbor? There’s cause for skepticism. (As a colleague just quipped: “if anyone gets beyond Earth orbit in 2018, I’ll eat the magazine.”) But exploration is not the stuff of little plans.
Image of Mars courtesy NASA’s National Space Science Data Center