The privately built SpaceX shuttle is only a few weeks away from its first space flight towards the International Space Station, but NASA already has big dreams for the Dragon; in a presentation held last week, SpaceX and space agency officials discussed sending Dragon to Mars in a revolutionary mission astronomers have called the ‘Red Dragon’.

The mission would be relatively cheap, at only $500 million, or at least this is the estimated cost at the moment, and it could be launched in 2018. It would include a robotic drill that would sample Martian permafrost and examine them with onboard lab equipment.

Aside from the good performance and cheap cost, the Dragon has yet another benefit: it is equipped with retrorockets that can ensure an easy, calm descent on to the red planet’s surface. This means it wouldn’t require any bouncing parachutes or hoverdrop capability, like NASA’s own rover missions.

Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center first revealed this revolutionary concept last year, and there is significant evidence pointing towards NASA wanting to explore and expand private space flights, given the significant financial problems they are facing at the moment. However, not everyone is convinced the SpaceX Dragon will be successful, and important members at NASA are concerned a private-transport proposal could jeopardize other planned rover missions.

Via Nature News