Blue Dragon: Overview of Major Hardware Components

SpaceX Falcon 9

The Falcon 9 is a successful flight-tested rocket noted for being the rocket that enabled SpaceX to become the first commercial company to visit the ISS (International Space Station). A Falcon 9 can carry 13150kg to LEO (Low Earth Orbit). Within the Blue Dragon architecture the Falcon 9 is used to launch all Dragon and DragonRider capsules to LEO.

The fairing and payload dimensions are shown below:

Falcon 9 fairing dimensions

Falcon 9 fairing dimensions

It is currently estimated that a total of three Falcon 9 launches will be required for a complete Blue Dragon mission:

  1. Pre-mission: Launch fitout crew to Abeona.
  2. Beginning of mission: Launch the crew to Abeona so they can transfer to Abeona prior to TMI (Trans Mars Injection).
  3. End of mission: Launch DragonRider to Abeona on arrival back in Earth orbit, so the crew can transfer to the DragonRider and descend to Earth surface.

At current prices of $54M per launch, this will cost $162M.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

The Falcon Heavy promises to be the most powerful rocket in the world, second only to the retired Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo astronauts to the Moon. A Falcon Heavy can deliver upwards of 53t to LEO.

In the Blue Dragon architecture, the Falcon Heavy is designed to launch the primary components to Mars: Abeona, the hab, the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) and the cargo Dragons.

While the Falcon Heavy can deliver a much larger mass to LEO, it has the exact same payload dimensions as the Falcon 9, as shown above. Each of these major components (or their sub-sections) must fit within these dimensions.

It is currently estimated that a total of five Falcon Heavy launches will be required for a full run-through of the Blue Dragon architecture:

  1. Launch the MAV to Mars.
  2. Launch the hab to LEO.
  3. Launch the hab cruise stage to LEO.
  4. Launch first cargo Dragon (MCM-1) to Mars.
  5. Launch second cargo Dragon (MCM-2) to Mars.
  6. Launch pieces of Abeona (the Mars Transfer Vehicle) to LEO.

At current prices of $128M per launch, this is $640M.

Mars Transfer Vehicle (MTV, or “Abeona“)

This is the space vehicle that will carry the crew to Mars and back. It is partially constructed and fuelled on orbit, and is not designed to ever land anywhere.

Abeona as currently envisaged will be based on a single Bigelow Aerospace BA-330 module, assuming, for now, that this will be large enough. A BA-330 is designed to support up to 6 people, which we will have; however, for an H2M mission it must also stock provisions for 6 people for at least 1 year, and perhaps as much as 1.5-2 years assuming we wish to provide the option to abort from Mars orbit. It may be necessary to connect two BA-330 modules together to provide double the pressurised volume and thus accommodate provisions. Further calculations are required.

The MTV is called Abeona, partly because a ship should have a name, and partly to reduce acronym overload. Abeona was the Roman goddess of journeys, who watches over children leaving home for the first time. Her name comes from the Latin verb abeo, “to depart, go away, or go forth”.

The BA-330 has the following attributes, when fully inflated:

20-23t mass

9.5m long

6.7m diameter

330m3 pressurised volume

The BA-330 module will be launched to LEO with engines, fuel and additional cargo and equipment using a Falcon Heavy. A single Falcon Heavy is capable of placing 53t in LEO, thus permitting up to an additional 30t of hardware to be launched with the BA-330. The full manifest is yet TBD (To Be Determined) but will likely include some or all of:

  • Engines.
  • Sufficient fuel to get to Mars and back.
  • Panels, furniture, etc. for internal fitout.
  • Gym, lab and medical equipment.
  • Food and water for 1-2 years.

After delivery to LEO, the BA-330 is inflated. The additional cargo will be tethered to the BA-330.

A fitout crew is subsequently launched via Falcon 9 + DragonRider to Abeona to complete construction. Interior construction of rooms, including cabins, laboratories, control room, gym/medical room, storm shelter, food/water storage, etc., will be completed. If necessary, additional supplies can be delivered to Abeona via Falcon 9 + Dragon.

Mars Surface Habitat (MSH, or “the hab”)

This is a custom-built piece of hardware designed to accommodate a crew of 6 astronauts on the surface of Mars. It must therefore include cabins, common areas (kitchen/dining), laboratories and other work areas, ECLSS, waste-disposal and power systems.

The current intention for the hab is that it will also include ISRU (In Situ Resource Utilisation) equipment capable of extracting water, oxygen and nitrogen from the Martian atmosphere, in order to maintain water and air supplies for the crew and compensate for losses due to leakage, recycling, airlock cycling and other factors. It therefore includes appropriate tanks to store sufficient quantities of these fluids.

The hab will include 2 inflatable modules, inspired by the design by Dr. Janek Kozicki. These will be inflated using oxygen and nitrogen obtained from the Martian atmosphere during the 26 months between arrival of the hab and arrival of Alpha Crew.

Unlike Mars Direct, DRA5 or the Mars-Oz architecture, the hab is landed uncrewed for improved safety. It is to be sent to Mars at approximately the same time as the MAV and landed nearby (within 1 km). On arrival at Mars surface:

  1. The hab will be activated (battery power) and checked out.
  2. The power system (solar and/or nuclear) will be activated.
  3. The three doors containing the inflatable modules will open.
  4. The ISRU unit will be activated and harvesting of O2, N2 and H2O from the atmo will commence.
  5. The inflatable modules will inflate while the water tanks fill.
  6. Once the hab is inflated, the O2 and N2 tanks will also fill.

Estimated maximum cost of development of the hab is $3B. This is based on comparison with MSL (Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity rover), which has cost an estimated $2.5B. While the hab is more complex than Curiosity in some ways, it is simpler in others. Furthermore, the intention is for a private contractor to develop and manufacture the hab rather than a large agency such as NASA, which should significantly reduce costs.

Mars Cargo Module (MCM or “cargo Dragon”)

For this option we will use 1-3 SpaceX Dragon capsules optimised for landing on Mars, and capable of delivering 3-6t of cargo each.

A version of the Dragon capsule optimised for Mars landing is already being developed for the Red Dragon mission. This important technical development will enable us to safely and repeatably land several tonnes at a time on Mars, which is a key enabling capability for human exploration and settlement of Mars.

The development cost of the cargo Dragons may therefore, in theory, be $0. In fact, this may even be a COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) component by the time of the mission. Once the ability to land Dragons on Mars is more fully mature, the cost is likely to be fixed (based on SpaceX behaviour to date), and probably less than ~$40M each.

This is much cheaper than the cost of developing an entirely new custom vehicle; yet the benefit to the crew of a few additional tonnes of cargo, including spare food, water, backup hardware, etc., will be significant. It may be worthwhile sending several cargo Dragons in order to fully support the crew for their 1.5 year surface stay.

There are several advantages to sending multiple capsules instead of one larger one:

  1. If one cargo capsule crashes, it’s cheaper to replace.
  2. It’s easier and safer to land smaller masses on Mars.
  3. It provides additional practice landing Dragon capsules on Mars.

Pern-1 (Earth ascent/Mars descent DragonRider)

Pern-1 is a DragonRider capsule optimised for landing on Mars, and capable of delivering 6 astronauts wearing marssuits to Mars surface.

As mentioned, a SpaceX Dragon is currently being developed for Mars landing. A DragonRider is simply a Dragon with crew configuration, i.e. it has seats inside. A standard DragonRider is configured to carry 7 astronauts without suits; however, for the purpose of Blue Dragon, Pern-1 will be configured to carry 6 astronauts wearing suits. This may require slightly larger seats, depending on whether the suits are gas-pressurised or MCP (Mechanical Counter-Pressure).

Why are the DragonRiders in this mission called “Pern”? It comes from a series of sci-fi novels by Anne McCaffrey called Dragonriders of Pern. Pern is the name of the planet where the series is set. Again, names are given to the DragonRider capsules to reduce acronym overload.

Pern-2 (Earth descent DragonRider)

Pern-2 is a DragonRider capsule that will be launched from Earth via Falcon 9 after Abeona has complete EOI (Earth Orbit Injection) and is safely back in LEO. The crew will transfer to Pern-2 and return to Earth.

It’s assumed, for now, that by the time Pern-2 is required DragonRider capsules will have already been used several (or many) times to transport people from Earth orbit to Earth surface, whether from the ISS or other spacecraft. The capability is currently being developed to land Dragon and DragonRider capsules on solid ground rather than splashdown in the ocean, via the addition to the Dragon of eight SuperDraco thrusters. This feature should have been available for around 20 years by the time Alpha Crew is due to return.

The crew will land on solid ground at an appropriate location TBD, which will be somewhere that immediate medical assistance can be provided by space medicine professionals, and planetary protection mechanisms can be implemented effectively.

About

I like to read, write, teach, travel, code, and play music. My interests are broad, spanning science, technology, space settlement, planetary engineering, environment, psychology, health, fitness, finance, business, and economics. My ambition is to be a successful international writer and speaker.

Posted in IMRS, Mars

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