SpaceX's Dragon Is Carrying a NASA Tool That Will Help Send Humans to Mars

SpaceX and NASA took a big step toward sending humans to Mars on Wednesday, with the launch of a Dragon capsule carrying 5,600 pounds of cargo up to the International Space Station. While these cargo launches have almost become commonplace, one tool inside the payload has the potential to unlock the next era of human space travel.

The Robotic Refueling Mission 3, one of the many mission tools included with this latest launch, is aimed at further researching ways to store and move cryogenic fluids, like oxygen and hydrogen stored at very low temperatures. One such fluid, liquid methane, could power rockets to Mars and enable humans to create more fuel from the Martian atmosphere to power the return trip. Where the first two missions simply focused on making robots remove caps and valves in preparation for spacecraft, the RRM3 will be the first demonstration of transfer and long-term storage of this fluid in microgravity.

“Any time you try something for the first time, there is an element of risk,” Jill McGuire, project manager for RRM3, said in a statement. “We hope our technology demonstration helps drive down the risk of refueling in space for future exploration and science missions.”

NASA's explanation of the benefits.
NASA's explanation of the benefits.

The mission will aim to transfer and store 42 liters of cryogenic fluid for six months to demonstrate the abilities of its system. The goal is to reach the six month mark without fluid loss, a major challenge considering these liquids have a boiling point somewhere below minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. In the case of liquid methane, the boiling point is a chilling minus 256 degrees Fahrenheit.

The mission will use a multi-function tool that prepares a number of smaller tools for fluid transfer. It then connects a hose between a liquid methane tank to an empty tank, using the Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot 2, armed with a camera, to check all the tools are in place.

SpaceX sent up the RRM3 as part of a larger bulk of cargo, covering over 250 investigations, which formed the CRS-16 mission that went up from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The capsule is expected to reach the space station by 4:30 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday. Unfortunately, the Falcon 9 booster that sent the capsule on its way landed in the Atlantic Ocean after launch, as a hydraulic pump controlling the grid fin failed to position the rocket to an upright landing.

The firm is also exploring the use of liquid methane to send humans to Mars. CEO Elon Musk has outlined an ambitious timetable for a manned mission as early as 2024, using the under-development Starship as its vehicle of choice. If successful, it could spark missions even further afield: Musk has described the Starship as “an interplanetary transport system that’s capable of getting from Earth to anywhere in the solar system as you establish propellant depots along the way.”

Related video: Elon Musk Shares His Vision for Martian Government

Media via NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA/SpaceX