SpaceX's Red Dragon capsule is a stepping stone towards sending humans to the Red Planet

SpaceX wants a capsule on Mars by 2018

SpaceX is intending to send an unmanned Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018.

Nasa is currently aiming for a human mission to the Red Planet in the 2030s, but said it would provide technical support for SpaceX's first foray, known as Red Dragon.

“[SpaceX] could provide valuable entry, descent and landing data to Nasa for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry,” Nasa said in a statement.

The announcement marks SpaceX's first target date for its unmanned mission to Mars, which is also a stepping stone to developing technologies needed for human transportation to the planet.

"Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system," said SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Twitter. "Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight."

With an internal volume roughly the size of a sports utility vehicle, the Dragon spacecraft would not be suitable for human transport on the long journey to Mars, which can take up to a year.

Musk, a billionaire entrepreneur who helped to found Tesla Motors and PayPal, started SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of slashing launch costs to make Mars travel affordable.

SpaceX intends to debut its Mars rocket, a heavy-lift version of the Falcon 9 booster currently flying, later this year.

The company recently achieved the first successful landing of a rocket on a barge in the middle of the ocean after a number of failed attempts.

It is hoped that the feat will lead to relatively cheap space launches that will allow rockets to be repeatedly reused.

The company currently flies cargo versions of its Dragon capsule to and from the International Space Station under a $2bn resupply services contract with Nasa.

It was also awarded an $83m contract yesterday to launch a GPS satellite, a first for the satellite industry which has been largely monopolised by Lockheed Martin and Boeing in recent times.

The satellite is due to be launched in May 2018 from Florida and represents the first competitively sourced launch service contract in more than a decade ending the exclusive relationship between the military and United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

ULA did not compete for the launch contract, citing accounting issues, although it was implied that trade sanctions limiting imports of its rockets' Russian-made engines played a part as well as difficulties competing against low bids from SpaceX.

"This GPS III Launch Services contract award achieves a balance between mission success, meeting operational needs, lowering launch costs, and reintroducing competition for National Security Space missions," Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, who heads the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, said.

Between now and 2018, the Air Force plans to solicit bids for contracts covering eight more satellite launches.

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