Elon Musk today announced plans for a giant rocket and spaceship that will theoretically be capable of sending humans to Mars. The theory, according to him, is that we could find a way to colonize Mars in just a century or two. In typical Musk fashion, he wasn't done there. During the latter stages of his presentation, the SpaceX CEO explained why he decided on Twitter a few weeks ago to rename the Mars Colonial Transporter to the "Interplanetary Transport System" — he wants the ITS to go so much farther beyond Mars. With a proposed 77-meter-tall rocket acting as a "javelin thrower" for the massive ITS spaceship, Musk teased the idea of SpaceX spending centuries helping humans explore the outer reaches of the Solar System.
Musk said he settled on the word "system" in naming this architecture because it consists of four parts: the rocket, the spaceship, a fueling tanker, and "propellant depots." That last part might sound the most benign, but it's the key to getting past Mars. Since the system mostly operates on what is essentially methane fuel — something that can be generated using natural resources found in space, especially on Mars — he sees a future beyond Mars where SpaceX essentially becomes the railroad for the Solar System. Or, if you look at it another way, SpaceX will someday need to conquer a problem similar to one that Tesla, Musk's other company, currently faces — infrastructure. (On a much more massive scale, that is.) Where Model S and X drivers are heavily reliant on Tesla's ability to build out a network of Superchargers, SpaceX passengers could one day be relying on a network of filling stations that stretch across the Solar System.
"If you have all of those four elements you can actually go anywhere in the Solar System by planet hopping or moon hopping," Musk said. "By establishing a propellant depot in the asteroid belt or on one of the moons of Jupiter, you can make flights from Mars to Jupiter, no problem."
One of SpaceX's long-term goals is to establish filling stations across the solar system
Musk then showed slides of his proposed interplanetary spaceship touring the Solar System. There was an visualization of the ship buzzing Saturn's rings, another of the ship in front of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, and a few of the ships standing tall on the icy surfaces of the moons Enceladus and Europa. "This system really gives you freedom to go anywhere you want in the greater Solar System," Musk said.
SpaceX has shied away from the space tourism talk that companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have focused on in the last decade. And to be clear, everything Musk announced today amounts to big talk for a man who runs a company with two major rocket failures in the last year and a half. There's also an incredible amount of information we don't know about the obstacles we'll face if humans ever travel in space for extended periods of time. We also have no idea what the decades hold for our species as we wait for a system like this to be built. But it's still fun to dream about what those big plans might look like if SpaceX can find a way to scale its operations up in a huge way.
Luckily, SpaceX posted high-resolution versions of the CGI slides to the company's Flickr account shortly after the event was over. We don't yet know all the details about Musk's plans for Mars, and it will take even longer to find out whether or not he'll come close to pulling any of it off. But at least now we know what it could look like.