Today is big day for Elon Musk - CEO of SpaceX promised on April 2016 to unveil during 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara more details about his plans of Mars colonization.
Information about today was given when Musk announced on Facebook profile of SpaceX, that Company set date of first mission to Mars for 2018. It was unveiled, that SpaceX would like to send their Red Dragon (special version of Dragon spacecraft modified and upgraded for Mars journey) without crew to Red Planet on early 2018. Character of this mission will be demonstrative, mainly to show, that their spacecraft and Falcon Heavy rocket are able to deliver to Mars large cargo with same ease as during regular missions to Earth orbit. It is sure, that SpaceX and Elon Musk will surprise us today with something impressive; specially that yesterday Musk unveiled on his Twitter profile following information:
"SpaceX propulsion just achieved first firing of the Raptor interplanetary transport engine"
This is big thing for SpaceX and probably one of the more important steps on the way to Mars colonization – ultimate dream of Elon Musk. Raptor is next generation engine designed by SpaceX and fueled with LOX/liquid methane. It is planned, that it will provide thrust at 2.7 MN, what makes it five times stronger that presently used Merlin-1D+ (with thrust at 420 kN). Engine is not much larger then Merlin, so it won't increase dry mass of the rocket (what could reduce amount of fuel in the tanks). Utilization of environment friendly and less expensive (both in production and handling) methane will let to reduce costs significantly, not to mention about optional refining methane on Mars surface in Sabatier reaction. Combined with impressive thrust, Raptor is surely propulsion of tomorrow - with this engine SpaceX is just much closer on their way for first Red Dragon mission in 2018.
Test of the engine was performed yesterday at SpaceX facility placed in McGregor, Texas. This particular Raptor was delivered to McGregor facility on 10 August 2016. No details were unveiled about test itself, so at the moment it is not known how long engine was working and what level of thrust was reached. For sure it is only the beginning of development and future adopting of engine into present and future rockets; it is possible that we will see Raptor also in other version probably after first Mars mission of the Red Dragon. In January 2016 USAF accepted plans of SpaceX and awarded Company with $33.6 million for developing prototype of Raptor suitable for using on upper stage for Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets. First test of upper stage version of Raptor is planned to be conducted also in 2018 at John C. Stennis Space Center (SSC) NASA test complex.