Planets

NASA: Odds Favor Successful SpaceX Mars Mission

Elon Musk's space company aiming for first flight to the Red Planet in 2018 and the US space agency says the time is right.

<p>SpaceX</p>

Before NASA decided to help SpaceX on its journey to Mars, details of which company chief Elon Musk plans to unveil on Tuesday, the U.S. space agency reviewed the plan for SpaceX's first mission, slated to launch in 2018, and decided it has a reasonably good chance of success.

For NASA, a successful mission means that SpaceX's Mars vehicle, called Red Dragon, flies through the Martian atmosphere with its thrusters firing in the direction of travel, a technology known as supersonic retrograde propulsion. The feather in the cap would be a propulsive landing on the Martian surface.

"This is a critical, critical technology for us," said Phil McAlister, director of NASA's Commercial Spaceflight Division. "This is flight data that would not be available to us by any other means."

RELATED: Musk: SpaceX Will Go 'Well Beyond' Mars

NASA is working toward sending astronauts to Mars in the mid-2030s. Musk aims to beat that by a decade.

The tech entrepreneur, who also heads Tesla Motors, is scheduled to unveil details of his Mars initiative during a presentation on Tuesday at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

SpaceX's debut mission is well into the planning stages. The company hopes to launch an unmanned Dragon capsule aboard a heavy-lift Falcon rocket in 2018, the next time the orbits of Earth and Mars are favorably aligned for flight.

After traveling for about 180 days, Red Dragon would enter Mars' thin atmosphere and make a powered descent and landing on the surface.

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

Dragon is too small to have passengers aboard, but it would become the biggest spacecraft ever to land on Mars.

NASA wants to be able to land 20- to 30 tons on Mars at a time. So far, the heaviest payload to land was the one-ton Curiosity rover.

WATCH VIDEO: Who Will Win the Race to Mars?

"The primary mission objective is to learn how to get to and land on Mars. If they do that -- just that -- this would be a huge success for SpaceX," McAlister said during a teleconference presentation to the NASA Future In-Space Operations group on Wednesday.

The Red Dragon mission "offers a flight demo of critical EDL (entry, descent and landing) technology -- particularly the supersonic retrograde propulsion -- probably at least a decade sooner and at a small fraction of the cost to NASA that it would be if we did our own kind of mission to get this data," McAlister added.

"We don't even have a mission on the books, so it's not even clear how long it would take. This is a very cost-effective way for us to get this kind of data ... a key first step," he said.

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

SpaceX intends to ramp up its expertise on Mars travel and operations with missions each time Earth and Mars favorably align for launch, which occurs about every 26 months.

In exchange for flight data and other information, NASA is serving as consultant and technical advisor for the Red Dragon mission. The agency also will let SpaceX use its deep-space and Mars relay communications networks. Red Dragon also may carry some NASA-sponsored payloads.

"SpaceX is responsible for and is going to maintain control over the Red Dragon, design, hardware and operations all the way through flight and post-flight," McAlister said.

"We determined that there was a reasonable likelihood of success for this mission that would be increased with our participation," he added. "Even if it's not successful, we felt our participation would be worthwhile."

GALLERY: Tour 'The Martian' Movie Set... On Mars

The realism of "The Martian" is getting the attention of NASA -- and not only because of what fictional NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) does on the surface. The agency has released several photographs showing real-life locations related to Watney's journey as he tries to get home to Earth. Also, the European Space Agency put out a map showing where Watney moved around on the surface (which we have put last in case you are worried about any spoilers.) Read on to see some of the places Watney had to think about when surviving on Mars.

PHOTOS: The Martian: Science vs. Fiction

Watney's journey begins in Acidalia Planitia, the landing site for his mission (Ares 3). Inside the crater you can see deposits that were blown there by the wind. Think about it -- as Watney and his crew moved around the crater, every place they went to, they were the first to put bootprints in that sand. The University of Arizona's HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter helped gather data for this picture. "We can’t see the Ares 3 habitat because it arrives sometime in the future, so this is the 'before' image,"

joked the HiRISE website

earlier this year.

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While we think of Mars as a place devoid of humans, we've sent several landing missions over the years. It turns out that Ares 3 is not so far away from the landing site of

NASA Pathfinder

and its rover, Sojourner -- the first rover to explore Mars in 1997. This image shows portions of the craft after it was deployed, such as the airbags and possibly parts of the heat shield. Since Pathfinder, NASA has sent three more rovers to the surface:

Opportunity (2004), Spirit (2004)

and

Curiosity

(2012). Opportunity and Curiosity are still working on the surface. The European Space Agency plans to send its first rover to Mars as part of the

2018 ExoMars mission

.

VIDEO: Interview: Matt Damon, Andy Weir Talk 'The Martian'

As the name "Ares 3" implies, the Ares program is just one of a series of missions to Mars. Ares 4 is the next one, targeting a famous crater on the Martian surface: Schiaparelli Crater. Nearly 300 miles (500 kilometers) across, it's hard to get the entire thing into one high-resolution image, so this is just a portion of it taken with HiRISE. According to NASA, the agency has

avoided dusty regions

like this for two reasons: the dust gets very warm during the day and cold at night (hard on equipment) and it's hard to know if there's anything interesting geologically in the bedrock underneath.

ANALYSIS: The Martian Winds WON'T Blow You Away

Here's a challenge about moving around on Mars: it's really hard to judge distance, because there are no familiar human markings to help us find our way around. Astronauts faced this challenge on the moon, and as Watney uses his rover on the surface, he has to be similarly careful not to go in the wrong direction or overstretch his rover's battery. Mawrth Crater is one of the landmarks Watney plots. "The crater rim is not very distinct, and from the Martian surface it would be quite difficult to tell that you are even on the rim of a crater,"

NASA says

.

VIDEO: How The Martian Strives to Get the Science Right

The Opportunity rover (which landed in 2004) is somewhat close to where Watney is moving around. It's possible that Watney draws inspiration from the plucky machine, which is still working well on Mars long past its original 90-Martian-day expiry date. Among Opportunity's major milestones: driving

more than a marathon's worth of distance on Mars,

finding extensive evidence of water around its landing site and beyond, and

exploring the rim of a large crater

called Endeavour.

PHOTOS: Real NASA Space Tech in ‘The Martian’

While we initially could imagine craters as simple excavations of the surface, the Martian weather makes them far more complex than that. This is a

close-up view of Becquerel Crater

, somewhat near where Watney was moving on the surface. These thick deposits would be made either by water (in the ancient past, when Mars was wetter) or wind, based on what we know of similar processes on Earth. You don't see a lot of craters here because the deposits are so thin that the wind can easily erase any craters in the surface.

PHOTOS: When Liquid Water Gushes On Mars

Here you can see Watney's journey across the surface of Mars, as mapped by the European Space Agency (and German Space Agency, DLR) based on imagery from the Mars Express spacecraft. The colors represent different heights of features on the Martian surface, with blue being lowest and red being highest. You can see how Watney had to carefully make his way between craters to reach his destination, the Ares 4 landing site.

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