Space access

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A child's fantasy of rockets to Mars and another rocket from Mars to farther space

Space access is the ability for persons to leave a planet's surface. This page is an introduction on basic principles and technology of getting from the Martian surface to an orbit or into free space.


A human colony on Mars can be established with or without space access. The fight against the gravitational pull requires large amounts of energy. Since the gravity of Mars is smaller than Earth' and the atmosphere is thinner, space access is easier. However, the energy resources of such a colony are limited. Using parts of the available energy for space access could be thought to reduce other project's progress.

However, space access for a martian settlements also means that there is a way to return the transportation vehicle back to Earth and re-use it. This will greatly reduce the cost of transportation from Earth to Mars. This is the In-situ ressources paradigm.

Beyond returning the transportation vehicles back to Earth for re-use, Assuming the colonists went to Mars to stay there and build their own civilization, there still might be some additional tasks to do:

  • Trips to Low Mars Orbit and possible space stations residing there for scientific reasons
  • Trips to Phobos and Deimos for scientific and mining reasons.
  • Ferry persons to and from space craft that have arrived from, or are heading for, Earth, or other celestial bodies. For example, the Mars cycler concept.
  • Possible satellite repair, not a dissimilar task as to what was imagined for the space shuttle in the 1970's

DeltaV and energy

The deltaV to orbit for Mars is about 3,8 km/s. For Earth, taking into account atmospheric friction the deltaV is about 9.3 to 10 km/s. Using the rocket equation Δv=ve*ln(Mo/Mf) or Mo/Mf= e(Δv/ve) we can see that the mass fraction of propellant to reach orbit is much lower for Mars than for Earth. For example with Methane and Oxygen propellant, the exhaust velocity (ve) is about 3400m/s, so for Mars the mass ratio is 3, while for Earth it is between 15 and 19. So it is at least five times easier to leave Mars than it is to leave Earth.

Conventional rocket crafts

A SSTO on Mars, the SpaceX Starship is a TSTO on Earth.

The craft should be:

It has proved very difficult to build an SSTO launcher on Earth, but the lower Martian gravity would be of assistance to any launching spacecraft. If the craft uses multiple stages, these will all have to be recovered separately, which complicates the process of reuse. SpaceX has proposed a combination vehicle that is SSTO on Mars, but TSTO on Earth. The combination of Starship and Falcon super heavy, or Booster.

Hydrogen, methane and oxygen propellants can be obtained from martian ice. The attitude control thrusters could use gaseous oxygen and methane, kept under pressure.

Early landers will probably be non-reusable or only partially reusable. The descent stages of these landers could be dismantled and reused.

The guidance systems on the lander need not be hi-tech. The Apollo spacecraft flew to the Moon using less computing power then a pocket calculator. A simple computer, or a pneumatic system could be used. Although there are advantages with hi-tech systems, lo-tech systems could be included as a backup.

However, precise landing to a dedicated landing pad would require advanced adaptive control techniques, as otherwise the probable landing area is often measured in tens of km2.

Speculative concepts

  • Supersonic in ground effect may be used for a winged shuttle even in the thin Martian atmosphere to help reduce costs.
  • A space elevator is an interesting alternative both for Luna and Mars. Probably, it allows even more cost reduction. However, Phobos' orbit may intersect the path of a martian space elevator.
  • A mass driver is powered electrical and requires no chemical propellants. While on Earth this would not work for lifting people to orbit, the conditions of Mars might allow it. However a mass driver capable of sending payloads into orbit is a large infrastructure.
  • Chemical propellants on Mars will be produced by solar arrays or nuclear reactors, through the electrolysis of water. So chemical propulsion on Mars is actually electrical in nature.