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SpaceX is planning to send one of its Dragon space capsules to Mars as early as 2018 – a full four years earlier than it previously planned.
According to the company’s announcement on April 27, the mission will involve an unmanned spacecraft dubbed the Red Dragon, which reports suggest will be a variant on the second version of its Dragon capsule, currently being used to take cargo to the International Space Station.
Details are still unclear, as the original plan was to have the Red Dragon capsule pick up samples gathered by the Mars 2020 rover and bring them back to Earth. Red Dragon would launch on a SpaceX Heavy Falcon rocket, descend to the Martian surface using onboard thrusters, grab samples from an existing rover with a robotic arm, and launch those samples back to Earth in a Mars ascent vehicle contained within the capsule.