Right now, SpaceX is developing two of its most ambitious projects yet – the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) and the BFS (Big Falcon Spaceship). The goal?
To bring humanity to Mars and eventually help establish outposts on Deimos, one of Mars’s moons. Here’s what SpaceX has been up to with its Deimos plans lately, and why they are buying oil rigs right now…
A Brief History of Mars Mission Failure
At first glance, Mars looks like it would be easy to explore and settle. As history shows us, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Once a forgotten frontier due to its inhospitable nature and endless costs, Mars has since become one of our most challenging space exploration endeavours. SpaceX is hoping to change that with some major new developments in space tech over recent years—but it may already be too late. If they want to make their planet-colonization dreams come true, they’ll need a better game plan than ever before.
Mars is a famously difficult planet to explore and colonize, even more so than Earth was in humanity’s early days. The red planet’s desolate landscape makes it one of our most intimidating space endeavours, but it’s been done before. In 1971, Mars 3 became our first unmanned lander to touch down on Mars with the Soviet Union behind it. It didn’t go well for Mars 3. Just seconds after landing, it stopped transmitting any data at all—and has never been heard from since. Even Russia doesn’t know what happened to Mars 3—the most likely explanation is a power outage caused by a solar flare or some other external influence.
Elon Musk Remains Confident
While SpaceX has yet to lay out a detailed plan for how exactly it will put people into space, Musk is confident about his company’s goals. We are making rapid progress in that direction, he said during a speech at Seattle’s Museum of Flight in May 2017. We will be ready to fly crewed missions with the SpaceX Dragon by next year. Musk says that one of their biggest challenges at present is simply figuring out how to make their interplanetary rockets reusable.
Musk has remained confident, and even a bit cheeky, about SpaceX’s goals. The chance of death is quite high, but if you’re not willing to risk that, then you should probably go into a different line of work—one where you don’t have to worry about things like death—he told Axios in May 2017. You shouldn’t be able to bite through steel with your teeth unless you are planet Earth or a character in a James Bond movie. Musk also says that one of their biggest challenges at present is simply figuring out how to make their interplanetary rockets reusable. Musk believes that before they can start launching people into space regularly they need to figure out how to make use of rockets multiple times.
Musk says that one of their biggest challenges at present is simply figuring out how to make their interplanetary rockets reusable. Musk believes that before they can start launching people into space regularly they need to figure out how to make use of rockets multiple times. He likens it to an aircraft in which you don’t just throw away an aeroplane after every flight, instead, it flies again and again and again. He believes that if they’re going to be sending people into space often then reusability will be a key factor. To reach Mars with current rockets, he estimates that a 100-fold reduction in cost is needed, not 100 per cent—so while reusability is one step toward lowering costs dramatically, we are still quite far from being able to achieve his goal.
The New Plan for Mars Colonization
SpaceX has officially unveiled its plan to colonize Mars, and it’s audacious. Musk’s company aims to put one million people on Mars by 2060 and eventually build an entire self-sustaining city there. To get things started, SpaceX just purchased two used oil rigs off of Scotland—reportedly at a price tag of $7 million apiece—which they plan to convert into autonomous drone ships capable of carrying 100 tons of supplies (and eventually 200-300 tons) up to Mars. Those ships will be integrated into SpaceX’s plans for sending rockets back and forth between Earth and Mars every 26 months or so, which means we can expect at least a few more exciting reveals from Musk over the next several years.
As Musk sees it, there are really two keys to putting a million people on Mars: an aggressive launch schedule and efficient ships. The first key will make use of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which is expected to fly for a test run late next year. That rocket will have about half as much capacity as SpaceX’s planned BFR—which stands for Big Falcon Rocket if you were wondering—and will be able to carry a payload of between 70 and 100 tons into low-Earth orbit. By contrast, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) has been in development since 2011 with an aim toward reaching 140 tons by 2033—but it’ll take decades more before SLS is able to send humans into space.
There’s also an efficiency factor at play: SpaceX has planned its Mars colonization around reusable rockets, which are obviously far more cost-effective than single-use ones. Elon Musk revealed plans for an even bigger SpaceX rocket back in September 2016—one that would be powered by 31 of SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engines and help colonize Mars by 2024. It’s an ambitious plan, but Musk has a history of seeing his most ambitious plans through to completion—and he’s betting $10 billion of his own money that BFR will be able to deliver on all those lofty promises.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
It is a bit curious that SpaceX is buying some used offshore oil rigs, but it’s worth noting that their need for such ships predates recent developments in reusable rockets. The purchase of these ships could be for upgrades or retrofits to SpaceX’s floating ocean platform (or perhaps something even more ambitious). In other words, just because SpaceX is purchasing oil rigs doesn’t mean they are going to start drilling any time soon. If they were going to do that, however, they would certainly need a massive ship and proper infrastructure—you know, like offshore platforms. The shipping channel where Elon Musk wants to build one of his gigafactories runs close by Port St.
We have a couple of months to find out. In April, Musk tweeted that he will announce plans for a Gigafactory in New York sometime in 2017. He also mentioned that Tesla will begin buying or leasing land for another Gigafactory, wherever it may be. It looks like we’ll hear more about space-age boat factories soon enough. In any case, sea-based floating factories are starting to sound like a reality show I wouldn’t mind watching—but only if it’s called Offshore Mastery. Anything else would be boring by comparison.
Would a space-age boat factory really be out of place in Musk’s emerging empire? At first glance, maybe not. We’re about to see his drone ships take center stage for their vital part in recovery efforts after SpaceX launches a rocket—and then turns around and recovers it again, just minutes later. Other reports have suggested that SpaceX will build its reusable rockets while they are docked in port, although one site believes they may do so at sea (see SeaBasing). If some form of BFR is already under development—even if it takes years to complete—it’s not much of a stretch to imagine floating factories fueling it into space as needed.
What do you think about this plan?
At first glance, it looks like SpaceX is making yet another interesting investment. However, there are a few things that give us pause: how much cash will they make off of these oil rigs? If they’re looking to provide a return on investment soon, it could indicate that their new satellite project might not be as profitable as they had hoped. Meanwhile, some sceptics think that SpaceX will have difficulty landing people back safely if something goes wrong with their craft or rocket. Overall, while these two possible missteps shouldn’t mean imminent doom for SpaceX, it certainly looks like they may need to watch their back if they want to continue being a leader in space technology.
In order to understand why it’s important to note that these oil rigs are located in relatively shallow waters (around 250 feet deep). This may indicate that SpaceX is trying to keep costs down by using a more cost-effective method of landing, namely land legs instead of water flotation. These shallow waters also indicate that these oil rigs could serve as great practise for an eventual mission back to Mars, where ships would need to land in similar conditions.
In response to concerns about SpaceX’s ability to land safely, Musk commented, The rockets will be fine. This is just an insurance policy in case things go wrong. We don’t expect them to, but we want to set up a contingency landing site in case something does happen and then [we can] get you back safe. So it should make people feel a lot better if something goes wrong with one of our missions.