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.
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