Southern California-based aerospace company SpaceX announced plans Wednesday to send one of the company's Dragon spaceships to Mars as soon as 2018.
The mission is billed as a test flight aimed at demonstrating the technology needed to land large payloads on Mars -- a critical step in advance of manned missions and possible colonization of the Red Planet. The company has already conducted tests of its Dragon 2 spacecraft, which SpaceX founder Elon Musk said via Twitter "is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system."
Musk said that the craft isn't envisioned as a way to send astronauts to Mars, noting that it "wouldn't be fun for longer journeys" beyond the moon because its interior space is roughly equivalent to that of an SUV.
Additional details of the Mars mission weren't immediately released.
SpaceX is still riding high from its successful April 8 recovery of a Falcon rocket on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean, after the rocket launched a Dragon spacecraft en route to the International Space Station. The recovery, which followed a series of failed attempts, is seen as a major cost-saving step forward for space operations, since at-sea landings are seen as cheaper because they require less fuel.
SpaceX made history in December when it landed one of the Falcon rockets upright on a landing pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida after it delivered a series of satellites into orbit. That landing showed that the multimillion- dollar rockets can be recovered and reused instead of burning up in the atmosphere or being lost in the ocean.
SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, is one of two companies -- along with Boeing -- with contracts from NASA to develop spacecraft that can carry astronauts to the International Space Station, filling the gap left by the retirement of the space shuttle program. The United States has been relying on Russian spacecraft to send astronauts to the space station since the shuttle program ended in 2011.