Shooting sports cars into the asteroid belt, is not the only thing the new rocket of SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy (FH) can do. Able to throw 16,8 metric tons to Mars (37,000 lb), it could send the equivalent of four 2012 Mars Science Laboratory missions (launch mass of 3,839 kg or 8,463 lb) to Mars… at once. This is more than enough capacity, to do what NASA has been planning to do since the 1980’ies. A mars sample return mission checking for life in the best labs.
Normally this would have required three to four pieces of equipment, that all need to be launched on separate vehicles. With the first flight success of the Falcon Heavy, beginning of February 2018, the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V, NASA could send all of those pieces for the price of a single rocket, and since it is reusable, it only costs USD 90 million, instead of the older USD 200 million single flight expendable rockets.
Even if the high-tech Mars vehicles cost a lot in their own right, bringing the launch cost from 800 million to less than 100 million, is still more than an 8-fold reduction.
By launching on one rocket, it also eliminate the time between the normally up to four launches of this mission, and the cost of keeping all those engineering teams together over the span of the entire sample return project. It shaves years and years off this project, personnel cost and overhead. In all, the total mission cost drops from about USD 4-6 billion to a very affordable number for a national or international cooperation between the space agencies.
A Mars sample return would go as follows:
One rover lands to find suitable locations (2012 Curiosity rover) and records where it finds promising spots, possibly indicating the presence of past or extant life. A second rover lands to take soil samples at those locations, puts them into separate canisters (2020 Rover) and loads the set into a third Launcher platform of a small rocket that lifts of into Mars orbit. The fourth piece of is a satellite in Mars Orbit receiving the canisters, that flies back to Earth.
In older scenario’s the payload would stay in orbit around Earth, and would be investigated on the International Space station. More recent scenario’s have the capsule land immediately on Earth, where it is recovered and studied in the best and safest labs.
Below you find two short videos demonstrating such a Mars sample return scenario.
The first is a 1980’ies version:
And a couple of decades later, we get an updated version with a more mature scenario that would end in a lab on the surface of Earth.
If the space agencies have accountants worth their money, the Falcon Heavy will be a serious contender to send ever more ambitious missions to Mars. In 2022 Elon Musk of SpaceX hopes to do better, when his BFR or Big Falcon Rocket should make its first flight. The BFR would be able to send at least 150 metric tons to the surface of Mars. More than enough material for a first manned outpost.
And with 30-50 metric tons of payload return capacity on a BFR, and the prospect of a high number of missions, the agencies could even start giving pottery classes with Martian dirt. That is… after all the more serious investigations of course, like, experimenting with mineral extraction, resource utilisation tests, perfecting 3D additive manufacturing techniques, creating the perfect Martian concrete, etc.
The renewed excitement and sense of anticipation in the space industry keeps on building.