Here's how SpaceX plans to land on Mars in 2018

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Why SpaceX's Latest Rocket Landing Matters

On Wednesday, Elon Musk's private company SpaceX announced on Twitter that it plans to send a spacecraft to Mars as soon as 2018.

The mission will involve sending a spacecraft called the Red Dragon to Mars to retrieve samples collected by NASA's Mars rover and then return them to Earth.

Here's SpaceX's announcement:

SpaceX has had big plans to usher in a new era of reusable rockets that could send the first humans to Mars and return them home for a while. In 2011, SpaceX released a video showing how they were going to re-land a rocket booster after launching it to space -- something that had never been done before.

RELATED: Things seen by the Mars Rover

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11 bizarre things the Mars Orbiter has spotted
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Here's how SpaceX plans to land on Mars in 2018

1. Water may (sometimes) flow

The MRO has provided the most convincing evidence yet that small amounts of extremely salty liquid water may still flow on the surface of Mars. 

The orbiter found that some ice may melt as the red planet warms during particular seasons, allowing the liquid to run down hills, creating streaks on the Martian surface.

Photo courtesy: IMAGE: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UNIV. OF ARIZON

2. Other spacecraft on the planet

The MRO has also kept an eye on other spacecraft that are exploring Mars from the surface.

The orbiter has snapped photos of the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers from its post above the planet. The MRO even caught sight of Curiosity as it descended to its landing spot via parachute.

Photo courtesy: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UA

3. Potential landing sites for new missions

The MRO has also scouted out new landing sites for other missions to Mars. Most recently, scientists have used the spacecraft's data to map out possible landing targets for a human mission to Mars.

Photo courtesy: JPL

4. Fresh craters

The MRO has also treated scientists to views of relatively fresh craters on Mars. 

One crater -- which appeared in photos in 2010 -- was not in images taken in 2008, meaning that whatever impact created the crater happened in between those years.

Photo courtesy: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UA

5. A possible supervolcano

Thanks to data beamed back to Earth from the MRO, scientists now think that there might be a supervolcano lurking beneath the surface of a very old crater on Mars' surface.

"On Mars, young volcanoes have a very distinctive appearance that allows us to identify them," scientist Joseph Michalski, said in a statement in 2013. 

"The longstanding question has been what ancient volcanoes on Mars look like. Perhaps they look like this one," he said.

Photo courtesy: NASA/JPL/GODDARD (LEFT) AND ESA (RIGHT)

6. A dust devil spotted

The MRO also captured an incredible image of a 12-mile-high dust devil swirling on the red planet in 2012. 

While the Martian atmosphere is thinner than Earth's, wind can still whip up dust storms and dust devils on the planet, according to NASA.

Photo courtesy: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UA

7. Martian sand dunes

The MRO has also snapped photos of fields of sand dunes on Mars, which change shape according to which way the wind blows from season to season.

At the moment, the Curiosity rover is exploring some of these martian sand dunes for the first time, investigating the sand of the red planet from close range.

Photo courtesy: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UA

8. An avalanche

One particularly incredible photo taken in August 2015 shows an avalanche of frost falling off a scarp. The orbiter managed to catch the avalanche at the exact moment the frost was falling.

Photo courtesy: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UA

9. Phobos and Deimos

The MRO doesn't only have eyes for Mars. 

The spacecraft has also taken some stunning photos of the red planet's moons, Phobos and Deimos, giving people on Earth a sense of the strange color of the oddly shaped moons.

Photo courtesy: NASA

9. Phobos and Deimos

The MRO doesn't only have eyes for Mars. 

The spacecraft has also taken some stunning photos of the red planet's moons, Phobos and Deimos, giving people on Earth a sense of the strange color of the oddly shaped moons.

Photo courtesy: NASA

10. A tumbling boulder

After 10 years in orbit, the MRO has definitely seen some weird stuff on the world's surface. 

One of those strange sights was the path left by an oddly shaped boulder rolling down a slope. The MRO caught some images of the tumbling rock in 2014, even spotting the area where it landed upright.

Photo courtesy: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UA

11. Frozen carbon dioxide

The MRO's imager also spotted gullies of frost on Martian plains, which look somewhat like the patterns deltas carve on the surface of Earth.

Photo courtesy: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UA

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has clocked more than a decade of service at the Red Planet and has yielded scientific discoveries and magnificent views of a distant world. These images taken by MRO's HiRISE camera are not in true color because they include infrared information in order to be optimized for geological science. For more info about MRO go to: http://www.nasa.gov/mro
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On December 21, 2015, SpaceX successfully landed its first reusable rocket, a Falcon 9, on a launch pad. They followed that up on April 8, 2016 by successfully landing another Falcon 9 on a barge floating in the ocean. Musk has announced plans to relaunch this Falcon 9 as early as May.

So what's cooler than landing a rocket on Earth? On Mars, of course.

Judging from the illustrations on their Flickr account, SpaceX plans to land on Mars using a simple approach that's never been tried before.

This is SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, which is not designed to carry humans, sitting on the Red Planet:

spaceX

SpaceX Photos

This unmanned Dragon capsule has been making trips to the International Space Station since 2010. But to get to Mars, which is 560,000 times farther, the Dragon will need to ride a more powerful rocket than the Falcon 9, which it takes to the ISS.

That rocket is SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, illustrated below, that is scheduled to launch out of Kennedy Space Center for the first time next year.

spaceX

SpaceX Photos

However, this monster rocket will only take Dragon so far. Getting to Mars is easy compared to landing on it because the Martian atmosphere is a tricky beast to control.

The Martian atmosphere is about 1,000 times thinner than Earth's, so simple parachutes won't slow a vehicle down enough to land safely.

But that atmosphere is still thick enough to generate a great deal of heat from friction against a spacecraft.Therefore, to land on Mars you have to have a spacecraft with a heat shield that can withstand temperature of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Luckily, Dragon's heat shield can protect it against temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so plummeting toward Mars, illustrated below, shouldn't be a problem heat-wise.

spacex

SpaceX Photos

But there's still the problem of slowing down. Although gravity on Mars is about 1/3 of what it is on Earth, the vehicle is still plummeting toward the ground at over 1,000 miles per hour after entering Mars's atmosphere. If it were to hit the ground at those speeds, you'd have a disaster.

The way that SpaceX aims to deal with this tricky problem is to use the thrusters on board the Dragon spacecraft to first redirect its momentum from downward to sideways, as illustrated below, thus reducing its speed:

spacex

SpaceX Photos

And then, as the spacecraft continues to plunge toward the surface, it will fire its thrusters one final time for a soft, vertical touch down:

spacex

SpaceX Photos

This sort of landing is unlike anything that anyone has ever tried before, but you have to admit that Dragon looks pretty great on Mars if it ever manages to get there:

spaceX

SpaceX Photos

The last major Mars landing was NASA's Curiosity rover in 2012. This landing was a huge success but extremely complicated that involved half a dozen steps that, if not completed perfectly, would end in disaster. NASA dubbed the landing process "7 minutes of terror" because that's how long it took to enter the atmosphere and land.

RELATED: More images about Mars

26 PHOTOS
Mars
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Here's how SpaceX plans to land on Mars in 2018
Photo: ESA
This photo released by NASA shows a view of Mars that was stitched together by images taken by NASA’s Viking Orbiter spacecraft. The space agency is planning to send a spacecraft similar to the Curiosity rover to the red planet in 2020. A NASA-appointed team released a report on Tuesday, July 9, 2013 that described the mission’s science goals. (AP Photo/NASA)
FILE - This photo released by NASA shows a self-portrait taken by the NASA rover Curiosity in Gale Crater on Mars. (AP Photo/NASA)

The image shows part of the Arabia Terra region, which is scattered with craters of varying sizes and ages. The craters in this image, caused by impacts in Mars’ past, all show different degrees of erosion. Some still have defined outer rims and clear features within them, while others are much smoother and featureless, almost seeming to run into one another or merge with their surroundings. 

This color image was taken by Mars Express’s High Resolution Stereo Camera on 19 November 2014, during orbit 13728. The image resolution is about 20 m per pixel.

(Photo by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)

MOUNT SHARP, MARS - APRIL 10, 2015: In this handout provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS A sweeping panorama combining 33 telephoto images into one Martian vista presents details of several types of terrain visible on Mount Sharp from a location along the route of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. The component images were taken by the rover's Mast Camera on April 10, 2015. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)
This image sent by NASAâs Opportunity rover on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015 shows a view from atop a Martian hill. Opportunity will spend several days at the summit making pictures that engineers will stitch into a color panorama. (AP Photo/NASA)
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity drilled into this rock target, "Cumberland," during the 279th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars (May 19, 2013) and collected a powdered sample of material from the rock's interior. Analysis of the Cumberland sample using laboratory instruments inside Curiosity will check results from "John Klein," the first rock on Mars from which a sample was ever collected and analyzed. The two rocks have similar appearance and lie about nine feet (2.75 meters) apart. (NASA)
Mars true-color globe showing Terra Meridiani. (Photo by NASA/Greg Shirah)
GALE CRATER, MARS - APRIL 10, 2015: In this handout provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover recorded this view of the sun setting at the close of the mission's 956th Martian day, or sol April 15, 2015, from the rover's location in Gale Crater, Mars. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ via Getty Images)
This mosaic image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS made from photographs taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover looks to the west of the Kimberley waypoint on the rover's route to the base of Mount Sharp. The mountain lies to the left of the scene. Sets of sandstone beds all incline to the south, indicating progressive build-out of sediment toward Mount Sharp. These inclined beds are overlain in the background by horizontally bedded fine-grained sandstones that likely represent river deposits. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
Twelve orbits a day provide the Mars Global Surveyor MOC wide angle cameras a global 'snapshot' of weather patterns across the planet. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
This photo taken Nov. 13, 2014, provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA and taken by the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars, shows the lower edge of the pale Pahrump Hills outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp includes wind-sculpted ripples of sand and dust in the middle ground. Some of the most innovative and challenging scientific research in human history is now underway in the Pahrump Hills, but not the ones 60 miles west of Las Vegas. These Pahrump Hills are down the highway another 55 million miles or so, at the base of a mountain in the bottom of a crater on the planet Mars. (AP Photo/JPL-NASA)
This image sent by NASAâs Opportunity rover on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015 shows a view from atop a Martian hill. Opportunity will spend several days at the summit making pictures that engineers will stitch into a color panorama. (AP Photo/NASA)
This Aug. 15, 2014, composite image released by NASA and made by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, shows a view looking back toward part of the west rim of Endeavour Crater that the rover drove along, heading southward, during the summer of 2014. NASA announced Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, that the rover has reached the base of Mount Sharp, its long-term science destination since landing two years ago. Officials say drilling could begin as early as next week at an outcrop of rocks called Pahrump Hills. (AP Photo/NASA, JPL-Caltech, Cornell University, Arizona State University)
In this photo taken May 19, 2005, provided by NASA, shows a false color image captured by Mars Exploration Rover Spir. it shows the rim of Gusev crater on Mars. This picture of the western sky was obtained using Pancam's 750-nanometer, 530-nanometer and 430-nanometer color filters. This filter combination allows false color images to be generated that are similar to what a human would see, but with the colors slightly exaggerated. Nearly two years after NASA's twin rovers parachuted to Mars, a Jekyll-and-Hyde picture is emerging about the planet's past and whether it could have supported life. Both Spirit and Opportunity uncovered geologic evidence of a wet past, a sign that ancient Mars may have been hospitable to life. But new findings reveal the Red Planet was also once such a hostile place that the environment may have prevented life from developing. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell)
IN SPACE - SEPTEMBER 2: In this handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, and captured by NASA's Curiosity rover, a rock outcrop called Link pops out from a Martian surface that is elsewhere blanketed by reddish-brown dust, showing evidence for an ancient, flowing stream, September 2, 2012. The fractured Link outcrop has blocks of exposed, clean surfaces. Rounded gravel fragments, or clasts, up to a couple inches (few centimeters) in size are in a matrix of white material. Many gravel-sized rocks have eroded out of the outcrop onto the surface, particularly in the left portion of the frame. The outcrop characteristics are consistent with a sedimentary conglomerate, or a rock that was formed by the deposition of water and is composed of many smaller rounded rocks cemented together. Water transport is the only process capable of producing the rounded shape of clasts of this size. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)
This image sent by NASAâs Opportunity rover on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015 shows a view from atop a Martian hill. Opportunity will spend several days at the summit making pictures that engineers will stitch into a color panorama. (AP Photo/NASA)
IN SPACE - AUGUST 8: In this handout image provided by NASA and released on August 8, 2012, the four main pieces of hardware that arrived on Mars with NASA's Curiosity rover are spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured this image about 24 hours after landing. The large, reduced-scale image points out the strewn hardware: the heat shield was the first piece to hit the ground, followed by the back shell attached to the parachute, then the rover itself touched down, and finally, after cables were cut, the sky crane flew away to the northwest and crashed. The relatively dark areas in all four spots are from disturbances of the bright dust on Mars, revealing the darker material below the surface dust. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona via Getty Images)
IN SPACE - AUGUST 5: In this handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, This color thumbnail image was obtained by NASA's Curiosity rover during its descent to the surface on Aug. 5 PDT and transmitted to Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The image from Curiosity's Mars Descent Imager illustrates the roughly circular swirls of dust kicked up from the Martian surface by the rocket motor exhaust. At this point, Curiosity is about 70 feet (20 meters) above the surface. This dust cloud was generated when the Curiosity rover was being lowered to the surface while the Sky Crane hovered above. This is the first image of the direct effects of rocket motor plumes on Mars and illustrates the mobility of powder-like dust on the Martian surface. It is among the first color images Curiosity sent back from Mars. The original image from MARDI has been geometrically corrected to look flat. The MSL Rover named Curiosity is equipped with a nuclear-powered lab capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting soil, measuring habitability, and whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbe. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)
This image provided by NASA shows a view by the Mars Rover Spirit of a sunset over the rim of Gusev Crater, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. Taken from Husband Hill, it looks much like a sunset on Earth, a reminder that other worlds can seem eerily familiar. Sunset and twilight images help scientists to determine how high into the atmosphere the Martian dust extends and to look for dust or ice clouds. Ten years after NASA landed two rovers on Mars on a 90-day mission, one rover is still exploring, and the project has generated hundreds of thousands of images from the Martian surface. Now the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is presenting more than 50 of the best photographs from the two Mars rovers in an art exhibit curated by the scientists who have led the ongoing mission. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Texas A&M/Cornell University)
WINDJANA, MARS - APRIL/MAY 2015: In this handout composite provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS NASA's Curiosity Mars rover used the camera at the end of its arm in April and May 2014 to take dozens of component images combined into this self-portrait where the rover drilled into a sandstone target called 'Windjana.' The camera is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which previously recorded portraits of Curiosity at two other important sites during the mission. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images)
A portion of the west rim of Endeavour crater sweeps southward in this false color view from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
FILE - This composite image provided by NASA shows before and-after images taken by the Opportunity rover. At left is an image of a patch of ground taken on Dec. 26, 2013. At right is in image taken on Jan. 8, 2014 showing a rock shaped like a jelly doughnut that had not been there before. Researchers have determined this now-infamous Martian rock resembling a jelly doughnut, dubbed Pinnacle Island, is a piece of a larger rock broken and moved by the wheel of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in early January. Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 and continues to explore. (AP Photo/NASA)
In this June 28, 2014 video frame provided by NASA, rockets fire on NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) as the saucer-shaped test vehicle flies into near-space. NASA engineers insist that a test of technology they hope to one day use above Mars achieved most of its objectives and taught them essential lessons for their next try despite a parachute that virtually disintegrated the moment it deployed. (AP Photo/NASA)
This image illustrates possible ways methane might be added to Mars' atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars. A longer caption discusses which are sources and which are sinks.(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan)
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But the technology isn't ready for human passengers just yet. Musk tweeted that the Dragon might not be the most comfortable environment for space explorers.

This mission marks an important milestone in the partnership between NASA and SpaceX, bringing them one step closer to achieving their goal of sending humans to Mars in by the 2030s.

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