Relativity Space, which is soon to launch its first rocket, and Impulse Space, founded by a former collaborator of Elon Musk, aim to reach Mars during the next open launch window in just under two and a half years. The schedule seems very optimistic, but if so, then these two companies could arrive before SpaceX, which plans to be the first private company to land on the red planet.
When founding SpaceX in 2002, Elon Musk had a big dream: to make humans an interplanetary species. With this in mind, the company is developing two huge structures: the Starship and the Super Heavy. On the calendar side, Elon Musk is counting on a first uncrewed mission to Mars for 2024 and is aiming for a possible manned mission for 2026. If successful, SpaceX would then become the first private company to land on the red planet. But can she lose this race?
Two young companies have indeed recently displayed similar ambitions, proposing to join forces to send a lander on site in two and a half years, when the positions of Earth and Mars will again align.
The mission plan
On one side we have Relativity Space, founded and run by Timothy Ellis. The company is still new to launching rockets. The first flight of its Terran 1 launcher could take place in a few weeks from Florida. However, this possible mission to Mars would rely on a much larger rocket, the Terran R, which will be comparable in size and lift capacity to a Falcon 9, SpaceX’s primary rocket. This rocket, which promises to be fully reusable and 3D printed, will not see the light of day before the end of 2024.
Relativity collaborator Impulse Space is an even younger company with even less track record. Its founder, Thomas Mueller, however, was alongside Elon Musk when the latter founded SpaceX in 2002. Mr. Mueller notably led the development of Merlin engines which power Falcon 9 rockets. Mr. Mueller left SpaceX in 2020 and founded Impulse a year later with the aim of developing spacecraft aimed at ferrying cargo into space.
Once launched into space by a rocket from Relativity Space, Impulse’s ship would detach from the upper stage to embark on a nine-month journey to Mars. This vessel would consist of a cruise stage to manage propulsion and communications and a capsule containing a lander. When approaching the red planet, said capsule would separate from the cruise stage to attempt a landing similar to that of the InSight mission, posed in 2018 by NASA.
Can they do it?
If successful, these two companies could open a new commercial market to that of the Moon, under which institutions, companies and other national agencies could send payloads to the red planet at reduced cost. However, reaching Mars is a much more difficult undertaking. let’s remember that only NASA and China landed there without incident.
Reaching Mars is also very expensive. A NASA mission, for example, will cost at least half a billion dollars. The boss of Relativity Space for his part refused to say how much his mission would cost. However, he pointed out that the investment funds raised by the company, as well as the revenue from the contracts it has to launch commercial satellites, could be enough to cover the costs.
Despite everything, the profile of this mission seems genuinely optimistic, at least from the point of view of the timetable. However, space is used to big promises. Ten years ago, several space companies promised, for example, to enrich themselves through the extraction of asteroids. These operations never saw the light of day. In 2016, Elon Musk also said the Starship would make its first uncrewed flight to Mars by 2022.