SpaceX has long been planning to use Dragon capsules to carry objects anywhere in the Solar System. They have officially announced a 2018 launch to Mars. Specifically, the launch window is April-May time frame, about 2 years from how. What, if any, payload are they expecting to launch, given only 2 years of preparation?
Aviation Week seems to be the best source right now. A few interesting bits:
- NASA is spending up to $30 million in support, mostly to help gain information for EDL on Mars.
- A photo might be taken using either ground-based sources, or orbital sources, to help the process.
- The specific plans will be outlined at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico in September 2016.
- The partnership with NASA is only in effect for the 2018 launch, not for a future launch window.
- EDL data will be gathered by the orbiters in real time, in case the spacecraft doesn't survive the landing.
- SpaceX will determine the payload, NASA wants to include the following: Mars-weather sensors, instruments to analyze atmospheric dust, and experimental in situ resource utilization gear.
- On board video will likely be used to image the plumes during decent. This video will be uploaded upon a successful landing.
Bottom line, it seems that most of the payload will be in EDL data, but there will likely be a few small experiments done that haven't been prioritized previously.
Other point of interest, it seems likely that they want the landing sequence to go over one of the rovers on Mars first, probably in the Supersonic Retropropulsion phase. Not sure what that means for it's eventual landing site, but it likely won't be that far away from one of the existing rovers on Mars.
The article you linked makes it pretty clear that the goal is to test powered landing of Dragon spacecraft. Hence, I expect little to no payload at all. Of course there might be some token experiment, but it really does not need to be.
What I do expect is some magnificent PR coverage of the whole event. So there will be some sort of moving pictures from the landing site. So probably small rovers or drones mainly equipped with decent camcorders. Maybe even some kind of coverage of the landing itself (by a capsule jettisoned during descent).
A second guess would be everything remotely usable for future missions. Any kind of equipment that would be usable for future colonists/explorers: Life support, basic tools, basic materials (water, oxygen, soil) even a small greenhouse. All this stuff is readily available and could be taken off the shelf.
edit: Whatever you put into the Dragon, the capsule remains a spacecraft intended for docking or manned landing. In order to unload bulkier experiments, a major structural refactoring would be in order, so I definitely do not expect large rovers, excavation equipment and the like.
In 2018 Red Dragon flight primary mission would be to prove a soft landing for a human rated vehicle, but this mission is also an opportunity to conclude even some others objectives. SpaceX cooperating with NASA has considered before a drilling mission concept searching for signs of water and current or prior life existence. According Wikipedia and this link in the Mission Concept procedures is included even this point:
- Deploy surface systems & commence surface operations.
And in the drilling mission concept goals are:
- Scientific goals
- Search for evidence of life
- Assess subsurface habitability
- Establish the origin, distribution, and composition of ground ice
- Reconstruct climate using ground ice record
- Human precursor goals
- Conduct human-relevant EDL demonstrations
- Assess potential hazards in dust, regolith, and ground ice
- Characterize resources
- Demonstrate access to subsurface resources
- Conduct ISRU demonstration
Possible similar payloads for drilling mission.
A payload for drilling at the Red Dragon spacecraft is a concept supported by Dr. John Karcz at (Ames Research Center) known as NASA Ames in this link.
A possible drilling system is a technology used by Zaptec company, a Norwegian company which uses a method called Plasma Channel drilling, or Electropulse drilling.
On Mars, the proposed Zaptec system will allow a depth of 2 km to be reached with less than 1 metric ton of surface payload housed in a SpaceX Dragon-sized capsule and peak power requirements of less than 2 kW.
Zaptec deep drilling system capable of reaching a depth of 2 km, deployed from a SpaceX Dragon-class landed capsule.
This SpaceX mission to Mars is a good opportunity to include this kind of payloads for scientific studies. Probably until 2018 mission, could be difficult developing and fitting the Red Dragon spacecraft type with a Zaptec drilling system, but maybe a less complicated system also smaller and easier to fit with the Red Dragon lander could be as an option.
SpaceX/Elon Musk will be 'debugging' the process of delivering payloads and/or humans to the surface of Mars.
So my guess is that they would have a payload that would be equivalent to 2-7 astronauts + minimal life support (enough for descent + getting to their next objective/base)
When I say equivalent I mean in mass and weight balance. Some of that would be sensors to measure the vibrations etc that a 'real' astronaut (marsonaut?) would experience.
That would be a 'primary' mission. Something like: 'Can we ride marsonauts down to mars on a red dragon/discover what we need to do, to be able to?'
A secondary mission might be to deliver a small (i.e., cheap incase dragon fails) science payload from NASA or the European Space Agency etc. and/or several 'cubesat' like payloads from universities etc (presumably piggybacking on the dragons communications, to relay data back to earth).