SpaceX Mars Mission Could Teach NASA About Landing Softly on the Red Planet

SpaceX wants to send a spacecraft to Mars by 2018.

— -- SpaceX wants to send an unmanned mission to Mars by 2018 -- a feat that could give NASA insights about a future crewed mission to the Red Planet.

The privately held space company announced on Wednesday it plans to send one of its Dragon 2 spacecraft on a test flight to the Red Planet, where it could yield valuable information about landing large payloads on the surface.

NASA will offer SpaceX technical support, including access to the Deep Space Network, in exchange for data on Martian entry, descent and landing, according to a blog post from Deputy Administrator Dava Newman. SpaceX will fund the mission.

"Sending astronauts to Mars, which will be one of the greatest feats of human innovation in the history of civilization, carries with it many, many puzzles to piece together," Newman wrote.

The ability to slow down a spacecraft after it has been traveling at a high velocity is required for a long-haul mission -- and the data NASA receives from SpaceX could be crucial about informing a future mission to the Red Planet. NASA showed off the heat shield technology it may use on Mars earlier this year, which will help protect a spacecraft from the heat of atmospheric entry and provide a softer landing.

While a mission to Mars isn't being targeted until the 2030s, NASA said with today's technology it would take about eight months to travel to the Red Planet. SpaceX plans to launch its Dragon 2 on the back of a Falcon Heavy rocket, which is so powerful it can blast off carrying a payload as heavy as a commercial jetliner packed with hundreds of passengers, luggage and fuel.

SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer Elon Musk tweeted that although his Dragon 2 spacecraft is designed to land anywhere in the solar system, it would be a less-than-ideal vessel for the journey to Mars since it offers about as much space as an SUV.

While space aficionados will have to wait for more details on the Mars launch plans, the company is set for another rocket launch and landing attempt next month.

The company's next satellite launch is scheduled for May 3, a company representative told ABC News today. While SpaceX will once again try to land its Falcon 9 booster at sea after sending the payload into orbit, the particular rocket used in this launch won't be the one SpaceX landed on a ship during the historic April 8 mission.

That rocket is undergoing testing and once it's certified for re-use, could fly again as early as June, according to Musk.