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Ideas Needed for Mars spacecraft

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I'm writing science fiction that takes place in the year 2040, ultimately I need ideas of what a futuristic space craft would look like. It would only be useful for interplanetary travel within our solar system. It has to land on Mars and be able to exit the planet as well. What fuel source would such a spacecraft use that would man a crew of 6 explorers to explore the caves. Also it needs room to contain probes and equipment for cave exploration. 

I don't know anything about engineering or rocket science, evidently. 

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Direct landing isn't usually practical. Remember, if you have to double your Delta-v, you have to square your mass ratio.

The actual design isn't that important, so long as nuclear electric/fusion rockets have huge radiators and other realistic components, you'll be alright.

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2040? Won't be "futuristic, unless you consider ideas like the SpaceX ITS "futuristic." It can land, then a year or 2 later it can take off if it makes enough propellant.

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thermal-nuclear rockets would be the technological closest technology for getting there and back, Nuclear/fusion pulse drive would be the next step. Full fusion rockets (maybe with inert gas mixed into the exhaust for extra thrust) would be the full sci-fi variant (needs some breakthroughs or massive money injection into research to fit into timeframe)

Edit: and the obligatory link for all new sci-fi writers searching for realistic spaceship technology:


Edited by hms_warrior
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I can see 3 possible routes:

1. ITS or ITS-like spacecraft designed for reuse and refueling.

2. "Old but never built" NASA mothership powered by a NERVA. Living area at the front, long utility truss section stretching rearwards surrounded by LH2 tanks, NERVA with radiators at the back. Maybe solar panels. Mars lander docked to the front, think "The Martian."

3. Small spacecraft used only for orbital insertion docking to a Mars station which has its own landers. Think SLS/Orion (with extra fuel tanks for Mars Insertion) or the Apollo Applications Program (Or even manned Red Dragon using stage two of the Falcon as a Wet Workshop).

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(the above are NASA's ideas.  I think they have formally abandoned nuclear power.  To many this might as well be abandoning Mars itself).

The ship to/from Mars is likely going to look a lot like the ISS.  That is the best/only known way of building large things in space where a crew of 6 can live for months (look up "launch windows" for a good explanation why it takes ~2-3 months to get to Mars (regardless of the fuel used) and you aren't coming home for 2-3 years.  I think that is well covered in the link).

The fuel used is either nuclear (and needs a lot of hydrogen heated by the nuclear reactor and thrust out like a rocket.  This is by far the most efficient means known to get humans to Mars) or a mixture of liquid methane and liquid oxygen (hydrogen is a possibility, just expect a lot to leak out while spending years on the surface of Mars).

Getting up/down on Mars is pretty straight forward.  It is much less massive than the Earth, so expect to need a smaller rocket to launch land.  The big catch is that landing will stir up a cloud of engine-damaging dust: the whole point of Curiosity's "skyhook" was to land without this issue (I don't expect manned vessels to use a skyhook).  Something like Spacex's dragon (only a bit bigger) might work.

Most launch/land plans bring fuel but require producing oxygen on Mars.  Making sure this happens could easily lead to a heap of drama.  No oxygen = a grave on Mars.

The only real "new" info not in the NASA link are:

Spacex likes methane, it weighs more than any suggested fuel but works well with their rockets.
Curiosity landed with the spacehook.  It is one more way to land.
Preparing oxygen on the surface of the planet seems to be taken far more seriously.


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