SpaceX plans unmanned flight to Mars as soon as 2018

- They've landed a rocket on a ship.  They've taken over an historic NASA launch pad.  Now, SpaceX says they're going to Mars -- and soon.

The company today announced plans to send an unmanned version of its Dragon 2 capsule to the Red Planet as soon as 2018 in a mission that could just be the start of regular flights to Mars.

The new capsule -- a "Red Dragon," as the company calls it -- will use rocket engines to soft-land on the surface of Mars.  It's the same way NASA's lunar module landed on the surface of the moon, and SpaceX has famously been using that method to perfect the reuse of its Falcon 9 rockets.

"These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars," the company explained in a Facebook post announcing the plan.  "Red Dragon missions will help inform the overall Mars architecture that will be unveiled later this year."

SpaceX has made no secret of their plans for the Red Planet -- they've often incorporated Mars into their corporate imagery, and even shared a "photo" of a terraformed Mars for Earth Day.  Company founder and CEO Elon Musk has long said his goal is to send people to Mars, but this is the first public sign of a schedule and a plan.

According to the limited amount of information released Wednesday, the Red Dragon capsule would be launched atop a bulked-up Falcon 9 rocket.  The triple-core version, known as the Falcon Heavy, is set to debut later this year from one of NASA's former space shuttle launch pads at Cape Canaveral.

NASA, meanwhile, is modifying Kennedy Space Center's other space shuttle pad for its own heavy lift rocket.  The Space Launch System and Orion capsules, meant to replace the space shuttle, will eventually carry people, but their destination is not clear yet.  Possible targets include the moon, an asteroid, and Mars, and probably won't take place until after 2023.

While SpaceX's Red Dragon missions may begin much sooner, they won't be carrying people, Musk tweeted.

"Wouldn't recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region.  Wouldn't be fun for longer journeys," he explained.  "Internal volume [about the] size of [an] SUV."

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