Agency seeks greater returns on deep-space missions NASA cal

by Marshall Space Flight Center

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NASA's Office of Space Science has issued a research announcement asking academic and industry researchers to propose in-space propulsion technology innovations — ideas that could revolutionize exploration and scientific study of the solar system.

NASA’s Office of Space Science has issued a research announcement asking academic and industry researchers around the nation to propose new propulsion technology innovations that could revolutionize exploration and scientific study of the solar system.

This announcement is part of a continuing series of solicitations for advanced propulsion technology development for NASA’s In-Space Propulsion program.

This solicitation, part of the NASA Research Announcement 02-OSS-01, seeks proposals in six areas of in-space propulsion research: aerocapture; advanced chemical propulsion; solar electric propulsion; space-based tether propulsion; and plasma sail and solar sail technologies.

Each technology identified for development is part of the In-Space Propulsion Program, managed in the Office of Space Sciences at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Paul Wercinski serves as program executive at NASA Headquarters for the program, which is implemented by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Research in these areas is being solicited as part of the In-Space Propulsion Technologies “Cycle 2” amendment to NRA 02-OSS-01. Total anticipated budget in Fiscal Year 2003 for proposed Cycle 2 work in these areas is approximately $14 million, with about $11 million in additional funding possible in Fiscal Year 2004, contingent on budget approval.

”Our goal is to make deep-space exploration more practical, increasing the value and duration of scientific study conducted in space and at our neighboring worlds,” said Les Johnson, In-Space Transportation manager at the Marshall Center.

“It’s not our intent to develop flight hardware geared exclusively to one-shot missions,” Johnson said. “Instead, we are working to develop cost-effective propulsion technologies that will support multiple missions, enabling us to send spacecraft on longer, more useful voyages — and in many cases to destinations that were previously unreachable using traditional propulsion systems.”

Technical proposals for the In-Space Propulsion element of the research announcement will be due in December 2002. “NASA Headquarters will assemble a panel of independent experts to evaluate the proposals and recommend selections to the NASA HQ selection official,“ Wercinski says.

NASA expects to award multiple contracts in each technology area.

Complete Cycle 2 proposal submission information and a breakout of funding for each technology area may be obtained online at:

Cycle 1 of NRA-02-OSS-01 concluded its competition period in August with the selection of 15 award recipients to conduct research and development in four key in-space propulsion technology areas.

More about propulsion technology projects

Aerocapture uses a planet’s atmosphere rather than an onboard propulsion system to slow a spacecraft. The subsequent fuel load reduction allows for a smaller, less costly launch vehicle, a larger scientific payload and a quicker start to a mission’s science phase — providing a higher return on NASA’s investment. Most importantly, it enables long-term orbital missions, rather than traditional planetary fly-bys.

Though conventional chemical fuels have reached the limit of their capacity for driving launch vehicles, research into advanced chemical propulsion technologies may provide new solutions for interplanetary travel. NASA is investigating promising new chemical fuels, including non-toxic monopropellants and advanced hydrocarbons, as well as new means of improving chemical fuel efficiency through development of lightweight components, cryogenic fluid management technologies and other improvements to fuel storage and delivery systems.

Solar electric propulsion systems use solar arrays to draw energy from the Sun, converting it to electrical power to accelerate on-board fuel and thus generate thrust. Compact, kilowatt-strength solar electric propulsion systems, already in development by NASA, could reduce onboard fuel loads and make room for larger mission payloads. In the future, higher-performance solar electric propulsion systems could be used to place satellites into high Earth orbit and to send science missions to the outer planets and their moons.

Tether propulsion is a propellant-free technology that could enable a variety of space missions. The concept of momentum-exchange/electrodynamic reboost, or “MXER” propulsion, combines two technologies: electrodynamic tether propulsion, or the generation of propulsive power by deploying an electrically conductive wire in a magnetic field; and momentum exchange, or the transfer of one object’s orbital momentum and energy to another. In combination, these technologies could enable a reusable in-space delivery system for satellites or other payloads to high Earth orbit, and could provide a permanent supply station and scientific outpost at other planets.

Thin, reflective solar sails could be propelled through space by sunlight, much as wind pushes sailboats here on Earth. This propellantless alternative eliminates the need for heavy, on-board propulsion systems, allowing spacecraft to travel quickly to distant worlds at reduced costs. Recent advances in strong, lightweight composite materials have helped intensify research in this area.

Another promising sail concept is the plasma sail — a huge magnetic bubble generated by an interplanetary vehicle, which is pushed at unprecedented speeds by the solar wind. Plasma sail technologies could halve conventional fuel-propelled trip times to the outer planets, benefiting research missions and perhaps one day serving as a means of resupplying vehicles parked in permanent orbit around other worlds.

More about NASA’s In-Space Propulsion Program

The Marshall Space Flight Center, a leader in NASA’s Space Transportation and Propulsion Systems Development, is home to the In-Space Transportation Investment Area, which provides project management for NASA’s In-Space Propulsion Program on behalf of the Office of Space Science in Washington, D.C.

NASA’s In-Space Propulsion efforts include Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.; Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas; and Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.