Two companies join SpaceX in the race for Mars, with a launch possible in 2024

Two companies join SpaceX in the race for Mars, with a launch possible in 2024

Here is a preliminary design of a Mars lander to be built by Impulse Space.
Enlarge / Here is a preliminary design of a Mars lander to be built by Impulse Space.

Impulse space

Relativity Space has not launched a single rocket, and Impulse Space has never tested one of its thrusters in space. Nevertheless, on Tuesday, the two California-based companies announced that they intend to launch an ambitious mission that will land on the surface of Mars in less than three years.

This would be the first commercial mission to Mars ever, and normally such a claim can be safely dismissed as absurd. But this announcement – even if it is bold – is probably worth taking seriously because of the companies and actors involved.

Relativity was founded in 2015 and has raised more than $ 1 billion and was to launch its small Terran 1 rocket later this year. The company, which seeks to 3D-print most of its vehicles, is already deep in the development of the fully reusable Terran R rocket. This booster is intended to be slightly more powerful than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and will carry the commercial mission to Mars. Relativity plans to have the Terran R rocket ready for launch in 2024, with the Mars payload flying on its debut mission at the end of the 2024 window to Mars.

Impulse Space is newer, less than a year old, but not without experienced engineers. The company was founded by Tom Mueller, the first employee of SpaceX and head of the propulsion department for more than a decade. His engines drive the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon vehicles. Mueller considers the launch a “solved problem” and develops a series of non-toxic, affordable thrusters to serve the space propulsion market.

“This is a whole new era of space travel, and we want to be positioned to provide reliable, affordable propulsion in space,” Mueller said in an interview with Ars. “We want to do everything – orbital, moon, interplanetary.”

The view of the assignment

The March mission was conceived last year when Relativity’s vice president of engineering and production, Zach Dunn, contacted Mueller. The two were old colleagues. Mueller had hired Dunn at SpaceX back in 2006, where the intern was soon put in charge of engine testing and then the overall propulsion system for the company’s early Falcon rockets. Relativity wanted to strike with its first Terran R mission, and Mueller took up the challenge.

The companies developed a mission where the Terran-R vehicle would increase a Mars Cruise Vehicle developed by Impulse Space to an orbit towards Mars. When it reached the red planet, the lander would separate from the cruise stage. This lander would take advantage of aeroshell technology developed by NASA for its Mars Phoenix lander and other vehicles and use the same entry speed and angle as the NASA missions. The Impulse Space lander would then land propulsively under the power of four thrusters, similar in action as a quadcopter. With this mission design, Impulse plans to deliver tens of kilos of scientific payload to the Martian surface.

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