Relativity Space has never launched a single rocket, and Impulse Space has never tested one of its engines in space. However, the two California-based companies announced on Tuesday their intention to launch an ambitious mission that will land on Mars in less than three years.
This would be the first ever commercial mission to Mars, and such a claim can usually be safely dismissed as absurd. But this announcement – as bold as it may be – likely deserves to be taken seriously because of the companies and players involved.
Founded in 2015, Relativity has raised more than $1 billion and is supposed to launch its small Terran 1 rocket later this year. The company, which seeks to 3D print the majority of its vehicles, is already working on developing the fully reusable vehicle Terran R missile.. This booster is intended to be somewhat more powerful than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and will carry the commercial mission to Mars. Relativity plans to have the Terran R rocket ready for launch in 2024, with the Mars payload flying on its first mission in late 2024.
Impulse Space is newer, less than a year old, but not without experienced engineers. The company was founded by Tom Mueller, the first ever hired SpaceX employee and leader of the payment division in more than a decade. Its engines power the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon vehicles. Muller considers launch a “problem solved” and is developing a line of non-toxic, low-cost thrusters to serve the space propulsion market.
“This is a whole new era of spaceflight, and we want to be in a position to be able to provide reliable, low-cost thrust in space,” Mueller said in an interview with Ars. “We want to do everything – orbital, lunar, interplanetary.”
The idea for a Mars mission was launched last year when Relativity’s vice president of engineering and manufacturing, Zach Dunn, reached out to Mueller. The two were old colleagues. Muller hired Dunn on SpaceX in 2006, where the intern was soon put in charge of testing the engine and then the overall propulsion system for the company’s first Falcon rockets. The Relativity wanted to make a boost with its first mission in Terran R, and Muller embraced the challenge.
The two companies created a mission in which the Terran-R rover would boost the Mars Cruise Vehicle developed by Impulse Space on a course toward Mars. Upon reaching the Red Planet, the probe detaches from the cruise stage. This lander will take advantage of aeroshell technology developed by NASA for its Mars Phoenix and other vehicles and use the same entry speed and angle as NASA’s missions. Then, the Impulse Space lander will land thrust under the power of four thrusters, similar in operation to a quadcopter. With this mission design, Impulse plans to transport tens of kilograms of scientific payload to the surface of Mars.
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