With Curiosity on Mars is it time to look at sending people?

With Curiosity on Mars is it time to look at sending people?

Summary: The people behind the Skylon reusable spaceplane have come up with an intriguing concept mission — and it involves putting teams of people on the Red Planet.

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Curiosity may have killed the flat cat, but sometimes there are ideas that refuse to die. One of them is Skylon, the British reusable spaceplane concept that grew out of the ashes of British Aerospace's HOTOL project.

Built around designer Alan Bond's SABRE air-breathing rocket engine, Skylon is intended to be a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane that takes off and lands like a normal aircraft — but with a cargo capacity of 15 tonnes to a 300km orbit. It's like something out of Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds, a massive aircraft taking container-loads to space.

skylon_takeoff1l
An impression of a Skylon spaceplane taking off powered by SABRE rockets. Photo: Reaction Engines

But Skylon isn't the only thing that the folk at Reaction Engines are thinking about.

If you can get equipment into orbit cheaply and reliably using Skylon, why not go a little further to, say, Mars?

Reminiscent of Werner von Braun's 1954 concept mission, where 10 spacecraft built in Earth orbit make their way in stately convoy to the Red Planet, Reaction Engines' idea is to send six craft as part of a mission called Troy — three unmanned cargo vessels and three crewed ships, with a set of reusable orbital transfer engines that make the initial boost out of Earth orbit.

The three unmanned vessels head to Mars first, leaving in 2026 and taking nine months to cross the void. Each carries three modules that land to form a base — one habitat, one full of supplies and rovers, and the other with equipment to produce fuel and air.

Three separate bases, roughly 120 degrees apart, will give astronauts access to nearly 90 percent of the Martian surface. The ships stay in orbit, with landers, waiting for the crewed vessels to arrive.

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An astronaut from the Troy concept mission prepares to leave for Mars. Photo: Reaction Engines

Two years later, in 2028, the three crewed vessels leave on their nine-month journeys. They rendezvous with the cargo vessels, and the crews transfer to the landers for a 14-month stay on Mars, before returning to Earth in 2031. Everything they need is already there, delivered by the earlier unmanned mission — ready for a fleet of manned rovers to start exploring the empty planet.

It's a suitably ambitious proposal, but also one that's practical and can give us the infrastructure for a whole range of near- and deep-space missions.

Here's a concept video of the mission.

Troy - Mission to Mars from Reaction Engines on Vimeo.

Oh, and points for anyone spotting the reference to Robert Heinlein's classic 1952 sci-fi novel The Rolling Stones in the first paragraph.

Topics: Nasa / Space, EU, After Hours

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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41 comments
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  • I volunteer!

    Let me go, I got a PhD and I am a US resident ALIEN. Do I qualify?
    goldenvu
    • ALIEN?

      Phobos would welcome you.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Not even human qualify

        It is too expensive to send a human to Mars, and there is no practical reason.

        Man landed on Moon only because there was competition between USSR and USA. USSR got first man space flight, first exit to open space, but USA got first Moon landing. It was political thing.

        But now there is no such competition, so no point. Robots will do much better and much cheaper whatever people could do there.
        DDERSSS
        • For once, a practical use for technology

          Robots could cultivate and terraform... THEN people can be sent over.

          Yeah, it would be cool to explore an alien world, but this ain't "Doctor Who" (pre-2005)...
          HypnoToad72
        • No practical reason?

          Are you kidding? Ever heard of having all your eggs in the same basket?
          That's what the human race is, Even Stephen Hawking thinks we should be going to Mars, are you smarter then him? If a major disaster strikes the earth bye, by human race.
          martin_js
          • What if ...

            Private companies start sending people to Mars. Who does control all of this? Would the U.S. intersect and destroy a ship heading to Mars with humans to habit on it?

            If the only limitation is money, if that's overcome Mars and the rest of the Universe if fair game for anyone
            markbn
          • Have you really thought about this?

            Have you seriously thought about how long it will take to make Mars even marginally viable? For your comment to make sense it would have to be self sufficient and capable of supporting a viable cross section of the human genome ... no point in saving humanity if you're just going to consign them to a future of in-bred genetic disorders.

            In the time that it will take for that to happen we will have moved on a long way in terms of artificial enhancements. No worries about osteoporosis if all your limbs are artificial etc etc.

            The future in space is not one where humans mkI will prevail, it's simply too extreme.
            Pastabake
    • This one's British!

      Troy is a British proposal.
      sbisson
  • I volunteer!

    Let me go, I got a PhD and I am a US resident ALIEN. Do I qualify?
    goldenvu
    • No

      Only UK citizens may apply to joined the Troy effort.
      Knowles2
  • Ridiculous waste of money

    Sending humans to Mars in the foreseeable future would be a ridiculous waste of money. Robotic craft that can come back--sure. But we'd be talking probably tens of trillions of dollars for human flight. For what? To say we did it? There are many well-documented reasons to believe prolonged human spaceflight may not even be possible. Just one reason is muscular atrophy that occurs in long-term weightlessness.

    We need to face reality that the U.S. is in a permanent decline, one reason being we no longer have a manufacturing base and related infrastructure and people with appropriate manufacturing skills and that's not going to change any time soon. No country can remain a superpower if it has to ship most of its wealth to other countries in order to obtain basic goods such as electronics, clothing, etc.

    How about writing about something realistic? Even fusion electric power is realistic although probably something long-term.
    Rick_R
    • "It has" implies a lack of choice

      "top" companies chose to gut this country, and be propped up with corporate welfare (and later bailouts) in the process.

      My nitpicking aside, you're right - your first and third paragraphs in particular are more immediately interesting...
      HypnoToad72
    • No practical reason?

      Are you kidding? All ready said this but I believe it's worth repeating,
      Ever heard of having all your eggs in the same basket?
      That's what the human race is, Even Stephen Hawking thinks we should be going to Mars, are you smarter then him? If a major disaster strikes the earth bye, bye human race. And how is it a problem to spend money on a few trips to mars to give there more room to spread out into the universe (Stephen Hawking,again believes that we should have done this) and if we are able to terraform mars to be habitable, it is Very possible that we could habitat the moon to be used as a prison, or as more room for the ever growing population.
      martin_js
  • With Curiosity on Mars is it time to look at sending people?

    I would volunteer to go to Mars. People already say I'm from there when I have conversations with them.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • Yay!

      I'll donate one dollar U.S. towards your one-way ticket.

      My only remorse would be sending a relatively clueless, bottom-of-the-tree-of-life primate to Mars. But, hey, better than sending a lemur.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Agree!

        "My only remorse would be sending a relatively clueless, bottom-of-the-tree-of-life primate to Mars. But, hey, better than sending a lemur."

        I agree which is why it'd be a great choice to send me so that people like you just described can stay here on Earth. Mars will be a new start for mankind.
        Loverock Davidson-
        • This brings renewed hope to mankind

          by way of intergalactic love rocks. And Martian Chia Pets.
          klumper
        • So Loverock if your going...... have you picked out a Lovie

          to take with you........Can't start a new world without a Lovie or maybe two or three to speed up the process......that's if you can hold up :-)
          Over and Out
  • Another huge ball of

    rock that looks like the Mojave desert. Look, we can sell ya rock. We got red rock, grey rocks soft rock, Hard Rock (yep, it's still open!) and all kinds of microbes you can play with. Hardly any reason to go over a couple of hours, you can party with the Secret Service in Vegas on the weekend and the remote control signals loop back and forth in seconds, not minutes!
    Tony Burzio
  • I've been everywhere, man

    The plan to get back sounds kind of far-fetched, which is all the more reason to send Charlie Sheen.
    Robert Hahn