SpaceX Dragon Capsule Could Bring Soil Samples Back From Mars

But settling the life-on-Mars debate is just the beginning

Illustration by SpaceX

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has been dutifully carting supplies to and from the International Space Station since 2012. Now a team of researchers wants to send the Dragon capsule to Mars and back.

The “Red Dragon” mission concept is just a concept, with no formal plans to carry it out yet. But scientists envision that a Dragon capsule could rendezvous with the 2020 Mars rover, which may collect samples of Martian soil to eventually return to Earth. So far, NASA hasn’t chosen a plan for getting those samples back to Earth.

Team ‘Red Dragon’ suggests that a Dragon capsule could launch from Earth on a SpaceX heavy rocket, travel to Mars, and set down near the rover or samples the rover caches.

Equipped with arms, the Dragon could grab the samples (or, if all else fails, collect its own) and attach them to a launch vehicle that sits atop the capsule. The launch vehicle would send the sample back to Earth.

That’s a lot of trouble to go through to get a bunch of rocks and dirt. But it’s still up for debate as to whether life could have thrived on Mars in the past or even in the present day, and the best way to settle the debate is by getting samples into the hands of human scientists.

Red Dragon is “technically feasible with the use of these emerging commercial technologies, coupled with technologies that already exist,” said Andy Gonzales from NASA’s Ames Research Center during a conference last week.

Although Elon Musk isn’t involved in the ‘Red Dragon’ idea, he lent his support for the idea via Twitter. And in fact, it sounds like he’s even got bigger plans for the Dragon, hinting at the possibility of sending more complex missions (or even supplies for a human base??) to Mars and beyond.