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From taking marketing advice by ten year olds, to making an electric street vehicle that floats like a boat, Elon Musk never seems to run out of audacious ideas, and those are only the tamest of examples. Musk seems to be pushing mankind desperately to a technofuturustic utopia of solar powered cities, self driving cars, vehicles on ground achieving the speeds of spacecraft, and human colonies on neighboring planets. Is he a mad genius or a hack, or a little bit of both? We take stock, here are some of ideas by Musk that cannot be considered tame by any measure.
The header image of the SpaceX twitter account shows the terraformation of Mars, where the Red planet is converted to an Earth like green one.
Plugging an energy gap in Australia in 100 days
A number of coal power plants across Australia have been shutting down, which is why the country is facing frequent black outs and power problems. After a Tesla employee offered to fix the electricity supply for the country, Musk was asked if he was serious about the proposition. Musk replied that he would commit to filling the gap in as little as 100 days after the contract was signed, and that if he was not able to do this, Australia could have the electricity for free. It was a dramatic proclamation considering over 250 million US dollars (roughly 1,636 crore) were at stake.
@mcannonbrookes Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. That serious enough for you?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 10, 2017
The interest of the Australian public and the politicians were piqued. A number of high ranking officials got on calls with Musk, and it looks like the world’s largest integrated energy company will be plugging Australia’s energy hole. Australia went ahead and asked for “mate’s rates” on the deals, which is a way of bargaining for the price. Musk quoted a price of $250/kWh. Will he manage to do it? Well, Tesla has already managed to install 80 MW battery farm in California within 90 days, so setting up a 100 MW farm in 100 days totally seems plausible. Musk has demonstrated that he can do it, and that these are not mere boasts.
Musk showcasing one of the Tesla Batteries. Image: Getty Images
The safest, fastest and cheapest mode of transport ever
Irked by the massive projects that aim to build high speed railway networks, Elon Musk set about envisioning a rapid transportation system of the future. The key features of such a system would be that it would have to be safe, fast, cheap to construct, powered by renewable energy, not disruptive to those living along the route, immune to weather conditions, and resistant to earthquakes. The result was Hyperloop, capsules of fast moving transport levitating magnetically in vaccuum sealed tubes that offer little air resistance. Hyperloop is a space age transport system for the ground, and offers to transport people and cargo in excess of 1,000 kilometers an hour.
Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies
There are a number of companies that are working on realising the vision of Elon Musk. Two companies, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Hyperloop One are both in the early phases of bringing Hyperloop tracks to India. SpaceX or Elon Musk are not directly related to any of the Hyperloop companies, but provide them with the technical grounding for the Hyperloop projects. Essentially, Elon Musk gave his idea to the world, for free. Hyperloop is a technically sound proposition, and the first set of loops may be connecting cities in the UAE. In India, the technology promises to reduce travel times between cities from hours to mere minutes.
The Hyperloop one vision for India. Image: Hyperloop One.
Going to the moon as a tourist
Say you have a ton of cash, and want to be one of the first private citizens to take a tour to the far side of the moon and come back to Earth. Who would you call? There are a few options. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Blue Origin, Virgin Atlantic and Nasa are some of the organisations that could potentially take you to the Moon. Maybe the two mysterious tourists with deep pockets called these other companies, but it was SpaceX that bagged the contract for an undisclosed amount. Elon Musk is sending tourists to the Moon in the Dragon spacecraft, which is normally used for resupply missions to the International Space Station.
Fly me to the moon … Okhttps://t.co/6QT8m5SHwn
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 27, 2017
Nasa has approved that the launch of the first private spaceflight beyond the orbit of the Moon will take place from the historic Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral. The launchpad was the one used for the series of manned missions to the Moon by Nasa, designated as the Apollo program. There are two space tourists, whose identities are not yet known. SpaceX has started preliminary examinations of the tourists, and will be providing training on how to man the spacecraft. Nasa has released a statement saying that it will work closely with SpaceX to make sure the space tourists have a safe journey, so this mission looks like it is in good hands.
The Dragon spacecraft which will take the first tourists to the moon.
Direct current as the future of energy
The battle of the currents was waged in the 1890s between Thomas Edison’s Edison Electric Light Company and George Westinghouse’s Westinghouse Electric Company. Edison supported direct current (DC) as the more practical mode of delivering energy, while Westinghouse promoted alternating current (AC). Nikola Tesla, supported AC as it had the potential of transporting larger amounts of energy. Westinghouse even licensed a poly-phase AC induction motor by Tesla. Elon Musk even named his Tesla Motor Company after Nikola Tesla.
Ironically, direct current is the right approach today, even though alternating was right in the past. Solar power & electronics both DC.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 12, 2017
Edison won that war, partially because of sustained propaganda campaign. In part due to exhibitions by General Electric, AC was adopted across most of the world for power grids. Your home is likely to be lit by AC, but the consumer electronics that you use are powered by DC. By and large, AC is the most used form of energy delivery at the present time. However, Musk is of the opinion that the future of energy is DC. Solar power and electronic devices both use DC. Will the world shift to DC? That depends on how soon the roll out of solar panels and batteries happens across the world.
A Tesla Powerwall. Image Credit: Tesla
Landing a rocket on a barge in the middle of the ocean
SpaceX cut down the cost of launching satellites in western countries to about half their existing rates. Of course, Isro in India can afford to send them up for much cheaper, in part because of lower salaries to its scientists. However, Musk used a novel approach for cutting costs, a capability that Isro does not yet have. Instead of disposing rockets after they were launched, Musk’s brilliant idea was to re-use the first stages of the rockets. The problem was that the rockets could not always hold enough fuel to return to the launchpad. The solution by Musk? land in a drone ship, in the middle of the ocean.
SpaceX became the first company to land a stage of a rocket on the Of Course I Still Love You barge in April 2016. The 23 story tall managed to land and stay erect on a floating platform about 300 km northeast of the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, two and a half minutes after launch. The milestone was achieved after four previous similar attempts failed. “The rocket landed instead of putting a hole in the ship or tipping over,” Musk told reporters, “We’re real excited about that.” The recovered rocket was later used for other spaceflights. The first stage booster is good for 10 to 20 launches, and probably can go up to 100 after minor refurbishments, according to Musk.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket disappears into clouds Image: Reuters/Joe Skipper
The world’s heaviest heavy lift rocket
In 2017, SpaceX is scheduled to launch the Falcon Heavy, the launch vehicle from SpaceX with the most capacity. The Falcon Heavy can put into orbit 54,400 kilograms. However, for 2022, Elon Musk plans to launch the biggest rocket ever built by man. The Interplanetary Transport System launch vehicle has a planned capacity of lifting 550,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. That is more than four times the capacity of its closest planned competitor, a Space Launch System rocket developed by Boeing, Orbital ATK and Nasa. The Space Launch System rocket has a planned capacity of 130,000 kilograms.
The SpaceX ITS launch vehicle with the Interplanetary Spaceship on top. Image: SpaceX.
Considering that SpaceX already has a proven history of rocket launches, it looks like Elon Musk will successfully build and launch the biggest rocket ever. Elon Musk hopes to cut costs of lifting insanely heavy loads into space, by making the first stage of the Interplanetary Transport System rocket re-usable. The first stage of the rocket is planned to have 42 Raptor rocket engines, also designed by SpaceX. The upper stages of the rockets are also designed to be one of two full fledged spacecraft in themselves, a novel approach by SpaceX. One of the two upper stages, the Interplanetary Spaceship, can also land on surfaces of other planets, such as Mars.
The first stage ITS booster on re-entry after launching a ship. Image: SpaceX
Making human life interplanetary
Musk outlined ambitious plans for making human life interplanetary at a presentation given to the International Astronautical Congress in September 2016. Musk said that this was the most important personal mission for him, and that he was only collecting assets through his various commercial projects, to fund his dream of establishing a permanent human settlement on another planet. Musk wants to use every launch window available, to fly a fleet of spacecraft to Mars, similar to the regular scheduled departures from a regular subway terminus on Earth. SpaceX will have to make 5000-10,000 trips with at least a 100 people on board each ship, to get 1,000,000 people on Mars, which is the minimum self-sustaining population for a permanent space colony.
The first phase of this incredible undertaking, a pathfinder mission to Mars with the Dragon spacecraft, known as the Red Dragon, is on track. The path-finding mission will explore the planet for potential landing sites for the first colonial ship. The spacecraft will specifically try and identify locations on the surface of the planet where carbon dioxide can be collected, and water can be mined. There are two back to back path-finding missions planned, the first one in 2018, and the second one in 2020. While SpaceX wants to attempt to establish a human colony on Mars, Nasa wants to send pioneers, and the United Arab Emirates wants to build the first city on Mars within the next hundred years. Maybe Musk can make his life easier by considering Nasa’s idea of making Mars more suitable for human colonies by giving it an artificial magnetosphere.
A tanker refueling an Interplanetary Spaceship in Earth orbit. Image: SpaceX.
Interplanetary voyages beyond Mars
This one proclamation is at the very limits of what seems plausible for humans to achieve within one lifetime. Musk wants humans to explore beyond Mars, and visit the other planets and moons in the solar system. The Dragon 2 spacecraft is straight out of science fiction, the kind of spacecraft that can hop between planets by landing on the surface of one, and taking off to visit another one. At the presentation for the International Astronautical Congress, Musk showed slides that presented the icy moons of Enceladus and Europa as possible destinations.
A SpaceX craft on Enceladus, with spouts of water in the background. Image: SpaceX
In September 2016, Musk renamed the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). Musk asked for feedback on social media before choosing the name of the series of spacecraft that would support interplanetary travel, and one of his favorite suggestions was the Heart of Gold from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Apart from the Dragon 2 spacecraft, Elon Musk showed that he is deadly serious about exploring planets and moons beyond Mars with the nomenclature of the Interplanetary Transport System. Even if these plans do not come to pass, at least they set an inspiringly high bar for flights of fancy, and men can only achieve something after they dream of it.
The SpaceX colonial ship on Europa. Image: SpaceX