The unexpected beauty and geologic diversity of Pluto may have briefly stolen the spotlight from Mars last summer, but make no mistake: The red planet is once again turning heads.

Thanks to its closest approach to Earth in 11 years, as well as some blockbuster promotion last fall courtesy of Matt Damon, interest in Mars is alive and well. And then there's Elon Musk, the charismatic SpaceX CEO who earlier this week doubled-down on his company's commitments to land a human crew on Mars.

"If things go according to plan, we should be able to launch people probably in 2024 with arrival in 2025," he said.

Such a bold statement, especially for a company that has yet to send a single human into orbit, inspires a healthy amount of skepticism. That said, there are several projects and evolving plans around Mars that inspire hope we may yet see a manned mission to the red planet in our lifetimes. Below are just a few of the developments pushing forward mankind's quest to leave footprints on Mars.

Enter the dragon

SpaceX Red Dragon SpaceX's Red Dragon spacecraft will be capable of carrying more than 2,000 pounds of supplies to Mars. (Photo: SpaceX)

The first massive step in sending humans to Mars will occur in 2018 when SpaceX launches their unmanned Red Dragon spacecraft on a mission to the red planet. The spacecraft is a modified, 12-foot wide version of the current Dragon capsule SpaceX has been sending to the International Space Station on supply runs. Its interior, about the size of your standard SUV, will be capable of hauling up to 2,200 pounds of supplies.

The Red Dragon will launch on SpaceX's Falcon Heavy Rocket which, when tested later this year, will become the most powerful operational rocket in the world. It will take off for Mars from SpaceX’s Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, with technical assistance provided by NASA. After the 2018 launch, Musk says SpaceX will initiate a launch rotation of Red Dragon capsules every 26 months; a window that takes advantage of Earth and Mars in close distance (about 46 million miles) to each other.

While SpaceX's Mars timetable is accelerated compared to NASA's (which is planning human missions to the red planet in the mid-2030s), the space agency is nonetheless eager to help the company in its mission.

“We know how to land 1 metric ton on Mars, the Red Dragon is 5 to 6 metric tons," Stephen Jurczyk, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, recently said during a conference. "We are in collaboration with SpaceX because we want the entry descent and landing data from that landing, and particularly we want the supersonic retro-propulsion data."

If the best case scenario pans out and the Red Dragon missions are successful, there may be more than 4 tons of supplies already present on Mars when the first manned mission from SpaceX descends in 2025. Both NASA and SpaceX plan on revealing more details about the 2018 mission in September.

Mapping Mars' first human outpost

Mars Map A sampling of the 47 Exploration Zones NASA would like mapped in detail for potential human outposts on Mars. (Photo: ICA/NASA)

If you're someone with a passion for cartography or the graphic arts, NASA and the International Cartographic Association (ICA) Commission on Planetary Cartography would love your help. The two agencies have partnered up on an open competition to create a map "useful in surface operations" for the first human outposts on Mars.

“This project is on the boundary between sci-fi, game design, graphic arts and science, like cartography is,” NASA planetary scientist Henrik Hargitai told National Geographic.

Interested participants will choose one of 47 "Exploration Zones" (EZ) that NASA has chosen as candidate outpost sites, with each EZ spanning 125 miles in diameter. None of them has been mapped in detail, giving cartographers a first crack at defining some of the surface features. Because NASA's mission to the red planet won't be until the 2030s, they're also giving people free reign to come up with a unique way to visualize these maps using virtual reality, heads-up displays or other as-yet founded technology.

"We can’t know the future mapping technology so what we ask is to make a map that you would find it useful to orient yourself in the chosen EZ, document future plans and already visited sites, mark the locations of the landmarks and habitat units," the site reads.

The deadline is September 1.

The rise of 'Valkyrie' robots

Before NASA lands its first human crew on Mars, it's hoping to send some 6-foot-tall, 300-pound humanoid robots to help clear the way. Called "Valkyries," the project consists of four sister robots, each costing $2 million. Originally designed for disaster relief, the bots are now destined to help humans colonize Mars.

One Valkyrie resides at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, while the other three have been loaned to engineering and robotic teams at universities in Massachusetts and Scotland. The idea behind the two-year education partnership is to tweak both the robots' design and capabilities.

“NASA is counting on robots to set up and care for deep space exploration facilities and equipment pre-deployed ahead of astronauts. Robots are also excellent precursors for conducting science missions ahead of human exploration,” Sasha Congiu Ellis of NASA’s Langley Research Center, told

A new generation of astronauts

NASA class of 2013 NASA's 2013 class of astronauts includes four women, the most even in the agencies' 58-year history. (Photo: NASA)

Just how alluring are NASA's future deep space missions? During its open selection process for its 2017 class of astronauts, the agency received over 18,000 applicants (three times the amount of the last pool) from a wide range of skilled men and women. In fact, for the first time in the agencies 58-year history, its most recent class of certified astronauts is comprised of 50 percent women.

According to NASA Commercial Crew astronaut Sunita Williams, Mars' first human explorers will require a wide range of skill sets.

“We need the wrench-turners, we need the scientists, we need the people with a bit of a medical background because you won’t have access to a whole group of doctors,” SpaceFlightInsider quoted her as saying. “There is the emotional aspect too. This new generation, especially, is used to being in constant communication with each other. Talking and texting to each other all the time. That’s not going to be the case on that long trip."

Current NASA minimum requirements to apply include a bachelor’s degree "from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics," as well as professional experience and/or "1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft."

Lockheed Martin's Mars Base Camp

Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin has proposed its own Mars mission, but with a slightly different approach than NASA or SpaceX. Instead of focusing on landing on the surface, the company's "Mars Base Camp" spacecraft would put humans in orbit above the planet. A kind of "step one" exploratory mission, the orbital base camp would allow the crew to control surface rovers in real time, as well as analyze soil and rock samples launched from the surface.

Lockheed says such a spacecraft could enter Mars orbit by 2028, with a manned mission to the surface only a few years after.

“Twenty thirty-three is definitely plausible,” Tony Antonelli, Lockheed's chief technologist for exploration systems, told The Washington Post. “The first thing is to get folks excited about going. It’s got to be tangible. We think the technology exists today to pull off the orbital mission.”

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

5 encouraging signs we're going to Mars
From Elon Musk's bold predictions to NASA's new generation of astronauts, we're making progress in the push to put humans on the red planet.