MIAMI • Next stop: Mars?
Last December, Space Exploration Technologies of California, better known as SpaceX, landed a rocket on Earth, flying a booster stage of one of its Falcon 9 rockets back to Cape Canaveral.
This month, the company repeated the feat even more impressively, setting the booster down on a floating platform in the Atlantic.
Now SpaceX, Mr Elon Musk's rocket company, has its sights set farther away: It aims to land one of its capsules on the surface of Mars in 2018, the company announced in a Twitter message on Wednesday.
Mr Musk has said that SpaceX's long-term goal is to colonise Mars, and he has talked of an ambitious schedule to get people there in the mid-2020s. But before that happens, he has to make sure that the technology for getting to Mars in one piece actually works.
RACE TO THE RED PLANET
We are closer than ever before to sending American astronauts to Mars than anyone, anywhere, at any time has ever been. A new consensus is emerging around Nasa's plan and timetable for sending astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s.
NASA'S PROF DAVA NEWMAN, commenting on SpaceX's ambitious plan to get people to Mars in the mid-2020s.
SpaceX said it planned to send an unmanned Dragon capsule to Mars in 2018 and land it on the surface about six months later. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) also plans to send people to Mars, although not as quickly, aiming for the mid-2030s.
On Wednesday afternoon, a couple of hours after the SpaceX Twitter message, Professor Dava Newman, Nasa's deputy administrator, wrote: "We are closer than ever before to sending American astronauts to Mars than anyone, anywhere, at any time has ever been. A new consensus is emerging around Nasa's plan and timetable for sending astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s."
Nasa has emphasised that - unlike the Apollo missions to the Moon - it is not working alone, but is enlisting the help of other countries and endeavours.
Almost in passing, Prof Newman mentioned the SpaceX Mars effort. "Among the many exciting things we're doing with American businesses, we're particularly excited about an upcoming SpaceX project that would build upon a current 'no exchange of funds' agreement we have with the company," she wrote.
Landing on Mars is tricky. The atmosphere is so thick that the energy of the arriving spacecraft slamming into the air molecules heats its outside to thousands of degrees, but it is too thin for parachutes to provide a gentle landing.
Nasa has turned to innovative devices like air bags, used to cushion the landings of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004, and a Rube Goldberg-esque "sky crane" system to set down the larger and heavier Curiosity rover in 2012.
A team at Nasa's Ames Research Centre in California proposed SpaceX's Dragon capsule as a cheaper way to land on Mars, using rocket engines.
"These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars," said Mr Philip Larson, a SpaceX spokesman.
NEW YORK TIMES