Science 6 min read

What you Missed From Elon Musk's BFR, Mars Colonization Announcement

SpaceX's Dragon Capsule--which will eventually help refuel the BFR | NASA Images |

SpaceX's Dragon Capsule--which will eventually help refuel the BFR | NASA Images |

Elon Musk completed his proposal for Mars Colonization in an update from the 2017 International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia–here’s what you shouldn’t have missed.

Elon Musk is taking us to Mars, and it’s sooner than you might think.

You may have read our coverage of his early Mars colonization proposals, SpaceX’s StarLink, and the Boring Project, but last week Elon put the pedal to the metal of his space colonization plans.

The Earth-Mars Synchronization (when the two planets are as close as they get) occurs every two years. Musk is aiming to be ready for colonization within the next three synchronizations.

The Plan

Musk claims that SpaceX will be ready to send the first cargo missions to Mars within five years.

Elon Musk has us colonizing Mars starting in 5 years.Click To Tweet

Musk says the first BFR will go under construction in Q2 in 2018.

After the initial cargo missions, passenger loaded ships will land. They will build a small launching area, and as more ships arrive, the first Mars “city” will begin construction.

However, successfully colonizing the Red Planet will take several thousand spacecraft, according to Musk.

For perspective, he mentions that if SpaceX launches 30 missions next year, that would account for half of all Earth-originating space missions. That number will continue to rise exponentially.

Nevertheless, the spacecraft used to carry out this mission will have to be multi-use and reusable. They would also need to be capable of being refueled readily by a number of different satellites, space stations, and tankers.

Technologies Key to the Plan

The Ship: BFR

First things first, Elon Musk calls this plan and ship the BFR. 

It will replace the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy (which was just completed), and Dragon spacecraft.

If you’re sad, don’t worry, SpaceX’s mission was to take all of the capabilities of these spacecraft and put them into the ultimate spacecraft, the BFR.

This ship will be larger yet more compact than other SpaceX designs, and it will be redundant in the sense that any one of these spacecraft can conduct any mission whether its personnel transport or cargo transport as the goal.

The BFR will:

  • Have 150 tons payload mass without any refueling–compare that to 30 tons and 25 tons for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, respectively
  • Carry roughly 100 human passengers
  • Be 100% reusable
  • Use 31 raptor engines that produce thrust of 54,000 tons
  • Have a mass of 4,400 tons
  • Be 48m long, 9m diameter
  • Have a payload bay 8 stories tall
  • Have a Delta wing that will enable the BFR to be balanced during launch dependant on payload and atmospheric densities. It will be able to land “anywhere in the solar system”
  • Have a Cargo pressurized volume of 825m^3
  • Have 40 cabins (with 2-3 people per cabin) and large common areas
  • Have more capability than the Saturn V will full reusability
  • Will cost less than the Falcon 1 to launch

Be sure to watch the entire BFR proposal for some additional information.

The Ship: Raptor Engines

The Raptor engines that will power the BFR will be the highest thrust to weight engine of any kind ever made. Musk added that they already have 1,200 seconds of firing across 42 test engines on the books.

The Raptor test engine can operate up to 200 atmospheres of pressure (200b), and the final version should operate over 300 atmospheres.

The Falcon 9 rocket and its last 16-successful propulsive landings have paved the way for SpaceX to propose landing the BFR on Mars the same exact way.

In fact, Musk says the BFR’s propulsive landing will be so accurate that it will actually land exactly on its launch mounts.

Automated Rendevous, Docking, and Refueling

Musk calls this system “absolutely fundamental.”

As we’ll continually mention, SpaceX will be applying each of what the earlier spacecraft do well to the BFR. A crucial part of ensuring successful travel of the BFR is being able to dock and refuel in orbit with “incredible precision.”

Right now, Dragon 1 uses an external arm that finalizes the last stage of orbital docking.

Next year, Musk says the Dragon 2 will dock without the external arm–and the process will be completely automated.

By refueling in orbit, Musk says that getting the BFR to Mars will cost only the price of propellant.

lunar mission bfr

Even more impressive, Musk says that if the BFR refuels at high elliptic orbit outside Earth, the BFR can make a trip to the Moon’s surface and return to Earth with no local propellant production needed on the moon.

Heat Shield Technology

The Dragon spacecraft has also been a vehicle for SpaceX and Musk’s research into improving heat shield technology. As Musk mentions, sufficient heat shields are integral to any substantive colonization effort.

The heat shield will act as something of a “brake pad” and will wear down over time.

However, the BFR’s aerodynamics will redirect 99% of the atmosphere-entry energy, further enabling the heat shield to do its work.

Local Propellant Production on Mars

mars transportation

For the first missions to Mars, the BFR will refuel in orbit, land, and still have enough fuel to leave the Red Plant.

However, in order to sustain a colony on Mars and enable BFR spacecraft to return to Earth, we will need local propellant production.

Luckily, Mars has plenty of CO2 and water ice, which enables you to create CH4 and O2 propellant.

Using the BFR for Earth Travel

Despite critics calling it a “logistical nightmare”, Musk also mentioned that SpaceX is considering using the BFR for Earth to Earth travel.

In most cases, the spacecraft can get you from one destination to another in half an hour–even in the farthest conceivable case. For example, New York City to Tokyo aboard a BFR would take roughly 28 minutes.

For such a specific mission and proposal we were a little shocked to see this proposal added in at the end in a willy-nilly fashion. If the goal is to go to Mars, why even spend the intellectual resources on Earth to Earth travel? Baby steps.

As Musk said, “It’s 2017. We should have a lunar base by now. What the hell is going on?”

Exactly, Elon. Don’t waste time designing the BFR for Earth to Earth travel. Get us an extraplanetary base!

The benefit, however, would be helping to refine the technology faster. Better to slim down margins for error here on Earth than marooned on the Red Planet.

The Full Proposal Video

We’ve brought you all of the key points. However, if you want to feel all the butterflies from Elon’s emotional (for Musk) speech you can watch the full proposal below, and it’s also linked here.

What about this plan most excites you? How feasible is this timeline? 

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