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Elon Musk 'guesses' SpaceX could send a ship to Mars as soon as 2024

CNET logo CNET 16/10/2020 Eric Mack
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If you want to go to Mars, timing is everything, and Elon Musk no longer thinks SpaceX will make it to the red planet when the next window of opportunity opens up in 2022. 

The world's leading fan of leaving this world had previously hoped to send a robotic mission to Mars in 2022, followed by a crewed trip a couple of years later. During an interview at the Mars Society virtual convention on Friday, Musk said he now thinks his next-generation Starship spacecraft could be ready as soon as 2023, in time for a launch window in 2024.

This futuristic render shows a collection of Starships hanging out on the surface of Mars. Elon Musk and Space envision astronauts initially living out of the spaceships while constructing a more permanent human settlement on the Red Planet. © SpaceX

This futuristic render shows a collection of Starships hanging out on the surface of Mars. Elon Musk and Space envision astronauts initially living out of the spaceships while constructing a more permanent human settlement on the Red Planet.

The orbits of Earth and Mars around the sun bring the two planets closest to each other roughly every two years. That's why we saw three robotic missions to our neighboring world, including NASA's Perseverance rover, launch within weeks of each other in July. 

"I think we've got a fighting chance," Musk said of making the 2024 Mars transport window. 

To get there, though, Musk says his team will need to pick up its pace of innovation and he isn't afraid to break a few things along the way.

"We'll probably lose a few ships," he said when asked about the development process for Starship, which is designed to eventually take dozens of people at a time to Mars.

Elon Musk shows off the shiny SpaceX Starship

SpaceX's plans to leave Earth's orbit start with this shiny creation. Starship is the next-gen spaceship that could one day deploy satellites, carry artists around the moon and even touch down on the moon and Mars. SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted this look at a stainless-steel Starship prototype in Texas on Jan. 10, 2019. This version wasn't intended for orbital duty, but was used as a "hopper" to test takeoffs and landings. "Starship will look like liquid silver," Musk tweeted in late 2018. SpaceX is working on an orbital prototype in Texas. The new Starship is meant to launch into Earth orbit. Originally published Jan. 28, 2019, and updated with new Starship milestones.

SpaceX's plans to leave Earth's orbit start with this shiny creation. Starship is the next-gen spaceship that could one day deploy satellites, carry artists around the moon and even touch down on the moon and Mars. SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted this look at a stainless-steel Starship prototype in Texas on Jan. 10, 2019. This version wasn't intended for orbital duty, but was used as a "hopper" to test takeoffs and landings. "Starship will look like liquid silver," Musk tweeted in late 2018. SpaceX is working on an orbital prototype in Texas. The new Starship is meant to launch into Earth orbit. Originally published Jan. 28, 2019, and updated with new Starship milestones.
© Provided by CNET

So far, early Starship prototypes have made short, low-altitude "hops" from the SpaceX test facility in Texas. Musk hopes the early models will make it to orbit for the first time next year.  He added that the company could demonstrate refueling capability in orbit in 2022 and begin making trips to the moon shortly after that.

The company's founder and chief engineer cautioned that he has no secret dates for achieving these milestones. 

"These are just guesses," Musk told Mars Society President Robert Zubrin over Zoom. 

As for who'll get to go to Mars, Musk said that once there are a million people who both want to go to the red planet and can afford it, that should be enough to sustain a city. So in other words, it seems the first martians are likely to be wealthy earthlings. 

Once on Mars, Musk said, the first order of business will be setting up a propellant plant. He also mentioned the idea of sending robotic droids to the surface that people could control remotely from Earth. 

Naturally, Musk also has designs on more than Mars. He mentioned the idea of using Starship or other craft to visit the suddenly exciting atmosphere of Venus, large asteroids, the moons of Jupiter and even the Kuiper Belt and furthest reaches of the solar system.

"We need to make the leap of going to another planet first," he said.   

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