The privately built Dragon space capsule's maiden flight to the International Space Station is just weeks away, but SpaceX and NASA already have big dreams for Dragon's next steps. In a presentation at NASA late last month, SpaceX and space agency officials discussed sending Dragon to Mars. A "Red Dragon" mission, as NASA officials have nicknamed it, would be a low-cost way to send an ice drill to look for signs of life at the Martian poles.
The relatively cheap $500 million mission could launch as soon as 2018, Nature News reports. It would include a robotic drill that would sample Martian permafrost and examine them with onboard lab equipment, like the types integrated into the forthcoming Curiosity rover.
Researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center first brought the concept to light earlier this year, but the presentation Oct. 31 was a formal discussion involving NASA's planetary science division. It's evidence that the agency is at least contemplating private space exploration, as well as private human spaceflight, in the face of tightening budgets, Nature News reports.
Aside from its relatively low cost (at least compared with other Mars missions) the Dragon capsule is equipped with retro rockets that could enable a calm, slow descent onto the Martian surface. It would not need any bouncing parachutes or hoverdrop capability. It would instead fire eight motors that are already attached to the Dragon capsule in its human-transport configuration, which will help it escape its Falcon 9 heavy lift rocket in case of an aborted launch. But not everyone is convinced this will work, and others at the space agency are worried a private-transport proposal could jeopardise other planned rover missions. NASA and SpaceX are gearing up for a proposal competition in 2013.