NASA Selects Aerojet Rocketdyne to Develop Solar Electric Propulsion for Deep Space Missions

This prototype 13-kilowatt Hall thruster was tested at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and  will be used by industry to develop high-power solar electric propulsion into a flight-qualified system.  Credits: NASA

NASA has selected Aerojet Rocketdyne to design and develop an advanced solar electric propulsion (SEP) system that will serve as a critical enabling technology for sending humans and robots on deep space exploration missions to cislunar space, asteroids and the Red Planet.

Under the 3 year, $67 million contract award, Aerojet Rocketdyne will develop the engineering development unit for an Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) with the potential for follow on flight units.

NASA hopes that the work will result in a 10 fold increase in “spaceflight transportation fuel efficiency compared to current chemical propulsion technology and more than double thrust capability compared to current electric propulsion systems.”

The SEP effort is based in part on NASA’s exploratory work on Hall ion thrusters which trap electrons in a magnetic field and uses them to ionize and accelerate the onboard xenon gas propellant to produce thrust much more efficiently than chemical thrusters.

The solar electric propulsion (SEP) system technology will afford benefits both to America’s commercial space and scientific space exploration capabilities.

For NASA, the SEP technology can be applied for expeditions to deep space such as NASA’s planned Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission (ARRM) to snatch a boulder from the surface of an asteroid and return it to cislunar space during the 2020s, as well as to carry out the agency’s ambitious plans to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ during the 2030s.

“Our plan right now is to flight test the higher power solar electric propulsion that Aerojet Rocketdyne will develop for us on the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM), which is going to go out to an asteroid with a robotic system, grab a boulder off of an asteroid, and bring it back to a lunar orbit,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in Washington, at a media briefing.

ARRM would launch around 2020 or 2021. Astronauts would blast off several years later in NASA’s Orion crew capsule in 2025 after the robotic probes travels back to lunar orbit.

For industry, electric propulsion is used increasingly to maneuver thrusters in Earth orbiting commercial satellites.

“Through this contract, NASA will be developing advanced electric propulsion elements for initial spaceflight applications, which will pave the way for an advanced solar electric propulsion demonstration mission by the end of the decade,” says Jurczyk.

“Development of this technology will advance our future in-space transportation capability for a variety of NASA deep space human and robotic exploration missions, as well as private commercial space missions.”

The starting point is NASA’s development and technology readiness testing of a prototype 13-kilowatt Hall thruster and power processing unit at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

Under the contract award Aerojet Rocketdyne aims to carry out the industrial development of “high-power solar electric propulsion into a flight-qualified system.”

They will develop, build, test and deliver “an integrated electric propulsion system consisting of a thruster, power processing unit (PPU), low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness,” as an engineering development unit.

This engineering development unit serves as the basis for producing commercial flight units.

If successful, NASA has an option to purchase up to four integrated flight units for actual space missions. Engineers from NASA Glenn and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will provide technical support.

Solar electric ion propulsion is already being used in NASA’s hugely successful Dawn asteroid orbiter mission.

Dawn was launched in 2007. It orbited and surveyed Vesta in 2011 and 2012 and then traveled outward to Ceres.

Dawn arrived at dwarf planet Ceres in March 2015 and is currently conducting breakthrough science at its lowest planned science mapping orbit.

A key part of the Journey to Mars, NASA will be sending cargo missions to the Red Planet to pave the way for human expeditions with the Orion crew module and Space Launch System.

Aerojet Rocketdyne states that “Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) systems have demonstrated the ability to reduce the mission cost for NASA Human Exploration cargo missions by more than 50 percent through the use of existing flight-proven SEP systems.”

“Using a SEP tug for cargo delivery, combined with NASA’s Space Launch System and the Orion crew module, provides an affordable path for deep space exploration,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne Vice President, Space and Launch Systems, Julie Van Kleeck.

Another near term application of high power solar electric propulsion could be for NASA’s proposed Mars 2022 telecom orbiter, said Bryan Smith, director of the Space Flight Systems Directorate at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, at the media briefing.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Obama Administration Proposes Smaller NASA Budget of $19 Billion for Fiscal Year 2017 with Big Exploration Cuts

NASA releases budget request for Fiscal Year 2017. Credit: NASA

The Obama Administration has announced its new Federal budget and is proposing to cut NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget to $19 billion by carving away significant funding for deep space exploration, whereas the overall US Federal budget actually increases to over $4.1 trillion.

This 2017 budget request amounts to almost $300 million less than the recently enacted NASA budget for 2016 and specifically stipulates deep funding cuts for deep space exploration programs involving both humans and robots, during President Obama’s final year in office.

The 2017 budget proposal would slash funding to the very programs designed to expand the frontiers of human knowledge and aimed at propelling humans outward to the Red Planet and robots to a Jovian moon that might be conducive to the formation of life.

Absent sufficient and reliable funding to keep NASA’s exploration endeavors on track, further launch delays are almost certainly inevitable – thereby fraying American leadership in space and science.

The administration is specifying big funding cuts to the ongoing development of NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and the state of the art Orion deep space crew capsule. They are the essential first ingredients to carry out NASA’s ambitious plans to send astronauts on deep space ‘Journey to Mars’ expeditions during the 2030s.

The overall Exploration Systems Development account for human deep space missions would be slashed about 18 percent from the 2016 funding level; from $4.0 Billion to only $3.3 Billion, or nearly $700 million.

SLS alone is reduced the most by $700 million from $2.0 billion to $1,31 billion, or a whopping 35 percent loss. Orion is reduced from $1.27 billion to $1.12 billion for a loss of some $150 million.

Make no mistake. These programs are already starved for funding and the Obama administration tried to force similar cuts to these programs in 2016, until Congress intervened.

Likewise, the Obama administration is proposing a big cut to the proposed robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa that would surely delay the launch by at least another half a decade or more – to the late 2020s.

The Europa mission budget proposal is cut to only $49 million and the launch is postponed until the late 2020s. Furthermore there is no funding for a proposed lander and the launch vehicle changes from SLS to a far less powerful EELV – causing a year’s long increased travel time.

In order to maintain an SLS launch in approximately 2022, NASA would require a budget of about $150 million in 2017, said David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer, during a Feb. 9 teleconference with reporters.

Overall, NASA’s hugely successful Planetary Sciences division suffers a huge and nearly 10 percent cut of $141 million to $1.51 billion – despite undeniably groundbreaking scientific successes this past year at Pluto, Ceres, Mars and more!

Altogether NASA would receive $19.025 billion in FY 2017. This totals $260 million less than the $19.285 billion appropriated in FY 2016, and thus corresponds to a reduction of 1.5 percent.

By contrast, the overall US Federal Budget will increase nearly 5 percent to approximately $4.1 trillion. Simple math demonstrates that NASA is clearly not a high priority for the administration.

NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal was announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a televised ‘State of NASA’ address at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia on Feb. 9.

Bolden did not dwell at all on the significant funding reductions for exploration.

“We are hitting our benchmarks with new exploration systems like the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion Crew Vehicle. A new consensus is emerging in the scientific and policy communities around our vision, timetable and plan for sending American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.”

And he outlined some milestones ahead.

“We’ll continue to make great progress on the Space Launch System – SLS–rocket and we’re preparing for a second series of engine tests,” said Bolden.

“At the Kennedy Space Center, our teams will outfit Orion’s crew module with the spacecraft’s heat-shielding thermal protection systems, avionics and subsystems like electrical power storage, cabin pressure control and flight software –to name just a few.”

NASA plans to launch the first combined SLS/Orion on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in November 2018.

Indeed the Orion EM-1 pressure vessel just arrived at the Kennedy Space Center last week to completely install all the systems required for flight.

The launch date for the first crewed flight on EM-2 was targeted for 2021. But EM-2 is likely to slip to the right to 2023, due to insufficient funding.

Lack of funding will also force NASA to delay development of the far more capable and powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to propel Orion on deep space missions. It will now not be available for the SLS/EM-2 launch as hoped.

The proposed huge budget cuts to SLS, Orion and Europa are certain to arose the ire of multiple members of Congress and space interest groups, who just successfully fought to increase NASA’s FY 2016 budget for these same programs in the recently passed 2016 omnibus spending bill.

“This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, in a statement in response to the president’s budget proposal.

“President Obama’s FY17 budget proposal shrinks our deep space exploration programs by more than $800 million. And the administration once more proposes cuts of more than $100 million to the Planetary Science accounts, which have previously funded missions like this past year’s Pluto flyby.”

“This imbalanced proposal continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible. This is not the proposal of an administration that is serious about maintaining America’s leadership in space.”

“The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration … had hoped the request would reflect the priorities laid out for NASA in the FY16 Omnibus, for which there was broad support,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, in a statement.

“Unfortunately this was not the case. The Coalition is disappointed with the proposed reduction in funding below the FY16 Omnibus for NASA’s exploration programs. We are deeply concerned about the Administration’s proposed cut to NASA’s human exploration development programs.”

“This proposed budget falls well short of the investment needed to support NASA’s exploration missions, and would have detrimental impacts on cornerstone, game-changing programs such as the super-heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the Orion spacecraft – the first spacecraft designed to reach multiple destinations in the human exploration of deep space.”

Funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was maintained at planned levels to keep it on track for launch in 2018.

On Dec. 18, 2015, the US Congress passed and the president signed the 2016 omnibus spending bill which funds the US government through the remainder of the 2016 Fiscal Year.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounted to nearly $19.3 Billion. That was an outstanding result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier in 2015.

The 2016 budget represented an increase of some $750 million above the Obama Administration’s proposed NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for Fiscal Year 2016, and an increase of more than $1.2 Billion over the enacted budget for FY 2015.

Under the proposed NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2017, the fictional exploits of ‘The Martian’ will never become reality.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post Obama Administration Proposes Smaller NASA Budget of $19 Billion for Fiscal Year 2017 with Big Exploration Cuts appeared first on Universe Today.

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