Planets

Musk: SpaceX Will Go 'Well Beyond' Mars

Elon Musk has hinted that the Mars Colonial Transport isn't just a concept to land humans on Mars -- it will provide an infrastructure throughout the solar system.

Image: Artist's concept of the SpaceX "Red Dragon" on Mars (SpaceX)

It seems only yesterday when the billionaire entrepreneur was blowing up rockets on a South Pacific island, beginning his mission to make space launches sustainable. Now, in 2016, Elon Musk's SpaceX has helped catalyze a new era in space transportation, making rocket launches cheaper, winning NASA contracts and even proving that you can return rockets for reuse.

But being a space visionary means that you don't only aim at the next goal, you have to look beyond it and that's exactly what Musk is doing.

RELATED: Musk: SpaceX to Launch People to Mars in 8 Years

In his long-term aim to make humanity an interplanetary species, it's no secret that SpaceX's ultimate destination is the Red Planet, though few details of this lofty goal have been shared publicly. But in a series of tweets ahead of his Sept. 27 speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico on Sept. 27, Musk let his enthusiasm spill over for commercial spaceflight's big step after Mars.

"Turns out MCT (Mars Colonial Transport) can go well beyond Mars, so will need a new name..." Musk teased on Friday in a tweet. By Saturday, it appears he had already settled on the MCT's new name:

The MCT (now "ITS", presumably) consists of a powerful rocket with the ability to launch a 100-ton payload into space and a spacecraft capable of landing on Mars, thus creating the first self-sustaining human outpost on the Red Planet. The rocket that will launch the whole thing was nicknamed by Musk the "Big F------ Rocket" (or "BFR" for short) and development is underway of a crewed Mars spacecraft, the Red Dragon.

WATCH VIDEO: Who Will Win the Race To Mars?

Although Mars is cited as the obvious choice to begin our multi-planetary future, the planet is far from being "habitable." Mars has an atmospheric pressure 100 times lower than Earth's, not only forcing us to live in pressurized habs (to breathe and protect us from radiation), it presents a huge challenge for landing large payloads onto the surface. A lower atmospheric pressure means less friction to slow landers down on reentry, creating a novel problem for getting boots and gear onto the surface.

Regardless, Musk's original MCT concept calls for an aggressive timeline, seeing the first landing of equipment on Mars in 2022 and the first crewed mission in 2024.

RELATED: Red Dragon: SpaceX Targets 2018 for First Mars Mission

But just because Mars is comparatively close, it's not the only game in town. Our moon remains a viable option, as does some of the outer solar system moons, like Saturn's hydrocarbon-rich Titan. Even some of the upper layers of Venus' atmosphere are surprisingly "Earth-like," though living in floating habitats creates its own challenges. If we can develop the life-support systems, Mars isn't the only place we can colonize (though who wouldn't want to see the sun set over Valles Marineris?) We could even plonk some kind of habitat on Mars moon Phobos and create a ready-made orbital Martian outpost.

And it seems Musk is keen to think about other options for his Interplanetary Transport System, rather than just pigeonholing it for sole Mars use. It will certainly be interesting to see what he discusses at the IAC this month.

RELATED: SpaceX: Mars Mission 'Insurance' Against Disaster

These future concepts are all well and good (and, indeed, necessary), but SpaceX has been dealt a tough 18 months that saw the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket minutes after lift-off on June 28, 2015 and then a launch pad fire and explosion earlier this month. Fortunately neither accident resulted in loss of life, but they certainly knocked the company's reputation for safely delivering customers' payloads to orbit, potentially impacting the company's bottom line and thus stymieing Musk's lofty goals of seeing massive rockets shuttling people around the solar system.

Although we tend to get excited for Musk's next big move in space -- as, let's face it, SpaceX has delivered an awful lot in the past 15 years -- other private companies like Jeff Besos' Blue Origins and aerospace giants like Boeing are also not wanting to be left behind and developing their own plans for how to make profit from this next exciting push into space.

GALLERY: Lesson of SpaceX Rocket Landing: Try, Try, Try Again:

A repaired and upgraded Falcon 9 rocket not only put SpaceX back in the launch business on Monday, it stunningly demonstrated that with enough time, technical expertise and maybe a little luck, it’s possible to return a rocket booster to the launch site. Here’s a look back at the highs and lows along the way to this historic moment.

MORE: Falcon Returns: SpaceX Makes Historic Rocket Landing

SpaceX pulled off an historic first Monday night, launching a network of communications satellites into orbit, and then landing the rocket’s jettisoned main stage back near the launch site. SpaceX gave its customer, Orbcomm, a cut-rate $47 million, two-flight deal, a savings for more than $70 million. Orbcomm, which operates machine-to-machine communications systems, such as between shipping containers and retailers, was an early SpaceX adopter, booking rides on the company’s now-decommissioned Falcon 1 launcher. SpaceX moved Orbcomm to its bigger Falcon 9 rockets for the same price. Landing the booster was the icing on the cake, an experiment conducted at SpaceX’s expense. The touchdown, however, may lead to even better prices for Orbcomm and SpaceX’s other customers in the future, with a new category of launch vehicle in the offing slightly used.

PHOTOS: Before Falcon 9, SpaceX Learned From Falcon 1 Flops

Photo: This is a striking timelapse image shows the bright streaks caused by the Falcon 9 launch and its returning first stage booster.

SpaceX founder and chief executive had a nasty surprise on his 44th birthday: a Falcon 9 rocket blasting off to deliver a load of cargo to the International Space Station broke apart about two minutes after liftoff from Florida on June 28. It was the first failure of the Falcon 9, which had flown 18 times previously. The accident, which was caused by a faulty strut in the rocket’s upper-stage liquid oxygen tank, kept the Falcon 9 fleet grounded for six months.

MORE: Faulty Strut Likely Caused SpaceX Rocket Explosion

Photo: This image is a snapshot of the dramatic NASA TV footage of the moment when the Falcon 9 rocket exploded moments after lift off on June 28.

Following a series of tests to control booster descent, SpaceX customized a pair of ocean platforms in hopes of bringing a Falcon 9 first-stage back intact, a key step in the company’s quest to develop a reusable launcher, one that could fly for a fraction of today’s going rate. Nailing the landing was “like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a windstorm,” SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said at the time. During the first attempt to land at sea, in January 2015, the booster hit the target, but landed too hard, primarily because the hydraulic system needed to operate stabilizing grid fins, ran out of fluid. The next attempt, in April, a stuck valve prevented the booster from reacting fast enough to maintain position after a successful touchdown. It toppled over and exploded.

VIDEO: SpaceX Releases Amazing (and Explosive) Video of Rocket Landing

Photo: During ocean landing tests, SpaceX proved they could return their Falcon 9 boosters to a precise target, but maintaining stability on touchdown has been a problem.

SpaceX’s early attempts to develop rocket landing technologies included a suborbital testbed called Grasshopper, which was used for low-altitude, low-speed hover and landing tests beginning in September 2012. On its eighth and final flight in October 2013, Grasshopper flew to an altitude of 2,441 feet and landed. A follow-on program, the Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle, or F9R, had a successful debut in April 2014, but crashed due to a faulty sensor four months later.

PHOTOS: SpaceX Grasshopper Rocket Takes Giant Leap

Photo: The experimental Grasshopper rocket hovers over its launch site during early tests.

One of the first to offer congratulations to Elon Musk and SpaceX for nailing a rocket landing was Jeff Bezos, fellow billionaire rocketeer who founded his own space company, Blue Origin, in 2000, a couple of years before Musk started SpaceX. “Welcome to the club!” Bezos posted on Twitter, a not-so-oblique reference to his company nailing a landing of its suborbital New Shepard rocket a month ago. After that feat, Musk took to Twitter to offer his own congratulations, also couched with comments about the relative difficulty of landing from orbital versus suborbital velocities. Rocket races, anyone?

MORE: Blue Origin Nails Rocket Landing

Photo: Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket achieves touchdown after a successful suborbital launch test.

Cheap, reusable rockets aren’t just good for business. SpaceX founder Elon Musk sees them as an essential part of the technology needed to get to Mars. “Now is the first time in the history of Earth ... where it's possible for us to extend life to other planets," Musk said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this month. "That window may be open for a long time -- and hopefully it is -- but it also may be open for a short time," he said. “The wise move is to make life multi-planetary while we can.” A large part of making space travel affordable is reducing launch costs, hence SpaceX’s steadfast efforts to develop reusable rockets. Musk said each Falcon 9 costs about $16 million to build, but fuel for the flight is a relatively cheap $200,000. Slashing costs by that much is a game-changer. SpaceX’s next job will be to assess the condition of the recovered Falcon and then possibly fly it again.

MORE: Musk: SpaceX Making 'Progress' Toward Mars Colony