NSS members including Mark Hopkins (NSS CEO), David Dunlop (Region 6 Director), and Dr. Feng Hsu (formerly of NASA and now Senior Vice President of Space Energy Group) will attend the China Energy and Environment Summit in Beijing on August 28th and 29th.
Mark Hopkins and Feng Hsu have been given the opportunity for a keynote address during the opening session. Hsu’s topic will be “Space Based Solar Power as a Safe and Sustainable Alternative to Nuclear Energy.”
“This is the first time in human history that spaced based solar power has been included as a major topic in an international energy summit that is hosted by a major energy-consuming nation,” says Hsu. “I am sure that after this summit, space based solar power (as one of the potential approaches for collecting the sun’s energy in a base-load scale) will get its fair share of attention by top global politicians as it has been long overdue.”
August 5, 2011, was a highly significant date in the history of the space program. On that date, NASA announced contracts awarded to four aerospace companies to define demonstration missions to test the capabilities of cryogenic propellant depots. The contracts effectively created a design competition which would lead to the selection of a company to build an actual prototype depot. Cryogenic propellant depots are a critical component of our entire future space exploration and development effort.
A cryogenic propellant depot can rightly be called “a gas station in space.” If there were no gas stations along the interstate, you could only go about 150-200 miles from home by car before you would have to return. Just as gas stations extend the range of your car, orbital propellant depots would extend the range of your rockets.
For rockets and space vehicles, propellants usually take up 2/3 or more of their total mass. If a rocket puts a payload into an orbit from where the payload is intended to go further, such as to the Moon, that payload has to contain another smaller rocket and a final payload. Once in orbit, the first rocket’s upper stage is usually “out of gas” and since there are no gas stations in orbit right now, it becomes very expensive, useless space junk. If the “final” payload is expected to land on the Moon or Mars, it again has to have its own landing rocket and an even smaller final payload. This can be referred to as the Russian Nested Doll (Matryoshka) style architecture, with smaller rockets inside (or on top) of larger rockets. (A Russian Doll is a metaphor for an object with one or a series of similar objects inside it.) This is just the way things have had to be done since the start of the space age, since we have never had propellant depots in space. If a stage could be re-fueled in orbit, it could then be reused more than once.
When payloads are launched with cryogenic propellants, the propellants have to be loaded at the last minute since they start boiling off right away. A propellant depot does several very important things:
It allows propellant to be loaded via docking ports from tanker rockets or propellant delivery capsules.
It keeps the propellant from boiling away using multiple methods.
It allows the propellants to be off-loaded into empty space vehicles and rocket stages just before a mission starts, while in micro or “zero” gravity in orbit, using the same or similar docking ports.
It protects the fuel store with micrometeorite and space debris bumpers and maintains orbital stability and attitude, especially by aiming the solar shield towards the sun, and reports its condition and fuel status to the ground.
The typical propellant depot would contain liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which respectively are about 430 and 300 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. To keep the propellant cold so it does not boil away, a depot can use four methods:
Multi-layered super-insulation around the tank to reduce heat conduction.
Structural isolation of the tank (like a thermos bottle) to reduce points where heat can be conducted through the structure into the tank. The depot will already be in a vacuum which is “free insulation.”
A multi-layered sun-shield to reduce radiated heat from the Sun and Earth.
An active cryo-cooler powered by solar panels to keep the fuel cold or to re-condense it as fast as it boils off.
NASA will probably select one of the four company designs to create a prototype depot. The designs will surely incorporate at least three of the four methods listed above. A prototype depot design may be based on an existing upper stage with its tanks. The initial prototype, which would cost between 200 and 300 million dollars, might not use the cryo-cooler part if it can demonstrate high efficiency with the static parts of its cooling system. Some companies have sophisticated and detailed designs which have existed for several years. One design might be able to keep boil-off losses to 1/10 of 1 percent a day or only 3 percent a month. It would probably hold at least 30 tons of propellants. Current cryo-coolers need to be scaled up from ones designed to keep space telescope instruments cold. For long duration propellant storage, a large cryo-cooler would definitely be needed, but it would not use a huge amount of power. The Spitzer space telescope maintained an insulated supply of liquid helium for its instruments without a cryo-cooler for 66 months.
A very significant result of having propellant depots in LEO is that it allows a spacecraft to be launched “dry” without fuel. This means that the total mass of the vehicle can be reduced by as much as 2/3 (the fuel), thus allowing a much larger spacecraft to be launched, or the same size spacecraft on a smaller rocket.
The same scenario can be used with depots placed at various destinations, such as geosynchronous orbit (GEO), L1, L2, or lunar or Mars orbit, where a depot would supply high performance cryogenic propellants to reach the Lunar or Martian surface. Depots can be sent to any destination orbit, since it is actually easier to keep the propellant cold away from the warm Earth’s infra-red radiation. The non-insulated or minimally insulated fuel tanks used by current spacecraft would lose all of their propellant during a trip to Mars, so only low performance (non-cryogenic) propellants have been used there to date. The depot can thus be considered as a component of a reusable in-space transport system that can do more than the sum of its parts.
Placing depots in remote destinations is the same as building gas stations in the mountains or the desert, far from the city. It allows you to conduct a full range of operations in the area of the depot with its secure propellant supply. If propellants can be created at the destinations from local materials, a local depot would provide a place to store them until they are needed. Since a depot can be a source of propulsion, energy, oxygen, and water, crew refuges may also be attached to remote depots as backup survival sites.
The cryogenic propellant depot is not only a critical part of the road beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), but would also be a boon for conducting routine operations in LEO. With the retirement of the Shuttle, the capacity to deliver large payloads to specific locations in LEO has been temporarily lost. Locations such as the space station or a propellant depot are usually thousands of miles from where a booster first enters orbit, and a booster, unlike the Shuttle, cannot move payloads around once in orbit.
Propellant depots offer an elegant solution to this problem because they could supply fuel to a reusable, insulated LEO space tug. The tug would remove the need for large payloads to carry their own propulsion systems to maneuver to locations such as the space station, the propellant depot, or other destinations. A space tug could also be used to rescue astronauts if they became stranded in an orbit away from the space station. A space tug was originally to be part of the space station program but was never funded. Such a space tug could be based on existing upper stages or upgrades of existing space station cargo delivery vehicles.
A re-usable LEO to GEO space tug can remove the need for the expendable upper stages currently needed to reach GEO. Such a tug would not be possible without an orbital propellant depot where it can refuel.
A low or Zero Boil-Off (ZBO) depot can be considered to be a propellant accumulator, since multiple small tanker vehicles can add propellant until the supply is sufficient for large missions. The value of a propellant accumulator can be illustrated by its potential use had it been included in the now-cancelled Constellation architecture. In that architecture, an Ares V would have been launched with a full lunar stack similar to that carried by a Saturn V, minus the crew capsule. NASA would have then had about two weeks to launch a crew to the orbiting lunar stack on an Ares I before enough of the hydrogen fuel boiled off to turn the multi-billion dollar stack into orbiting space junk and wasting the entire Ares V launch. Even a medium-sized cryo-cooler docked with the lunar stack in orbit would have been sufficient to keep the fuel cold. With a depot, a lunar stack could be launched dry (meaning a much lighter stack is needed, thus requiring a smaller booster, or alternatively a larger stack with the same size booster). The stack would rendezvous with the depot, load the dry stage that takes the stack to the Moon with propellant, and the stack would then leave Low Earth Orbit.
Using depots to re-fuel upper stages would mean that Heavy Lift Vehicles (HLVs) can be smaller than they would otherwise need to be. For example, a Falcon Heavy class HLV (50 metric tons) would be able to launch a dry payload equivalent to what an SLS class HLV (125 metric tons) would be able to launch wet, at a small fraction of the cost.
The new commitment of NASA money to propellant depot design lends more credibility to the concept. There are no fundamental barriers to building depots — it is an idea which has existed on paper for decades but for which no development money has been available. The longtime lack of funding acted to reduce the credibility of the idea despite its inherent value and technical feasibility. In addition, the business-as-usual focus on expendable launchers fostered a general lack of interest. Funding for depots was suggested by the second Augustine Commission in 2009 and is supported by Dr. Robert Braun, NASA Chief Technologist, as part of NASA’s advanced technologies initiative.
The four companies receiving the NASA contracts are Analytical Mechanics Associates Inc., Hampton, Va.; Ball Aerospace & Technologies, Boulder, Colo.; The Boeing Co., Huntington Beach, Calif.; and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., Littleton, Colo. Each contract is worth up to $600,000.
NASA has agreed in principle to allow the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule to dock with the International Space Station. Launch of the Dragon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled for November 30 with the docking to occur 9 days later. This will be the 3rd launch of Falcon 9.
Original plans called for an additional flight to first demonstrate a rendezvous with the space station with actual docking to occur on a later flight. These two flights have now been combined into one flight, with final approval from NASA expected. This will be the first demonstration that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the space station.
The Dragon spacecraft heat shield is designed not only for re-entry from Earth orbit (at 17,000 MPH) but also for re-entry from a lunar-return trajectory (at 25,000 MPH).
Work also continues on modifying the Dragon spacecraft to human-rate it by adding a launch escape system. SpaceX received a $75 million NASA contract in April to develop this system. SpaceX plans to further modify the system in the future to make the spacecraft capable of landing on any solid surface in the Solar System. See the short video below.
NASA has selected seven companies to integrate and fly technology payloads on commercial suborbital reusable platforms that carry payloads near the boundary of space and back.
This arrangement marks the first time that NASA has contracted with commercial partners to provide flights into space on a suborbital spacecraft, and represents another important endorsement of the value of regular commercial space access for a wide range of science and educational applications.
As part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, each successful vendor will receive an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract. These two-year contracts, worth a combined total of $10 million, will allow NASA to draw from a pool of commercial space companies to deliver payload integration and flight services. The flights will carry a variety of payloads to help meet the agency’s research and technology needs.
“Through this catalog approach, NASA is moving toward the goal of making frequent, low-cost access to near-space available to a wide range of engineers, scientists and technologists,” said NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The government’s ability to open the suborbital research frontier to a broad community of innovators will enable maturation of the new technologies and capabilities needed for NASA’s future missions in space.”
The selected companies are:
– Armadillo Aerospace, Heath, Texas
– Near Space Corp., Tillamook, Ore.
– Masten Space Systems, Mojave, Calif.
– Up Aerospace Inc., Highlands Ranch, Colo.
– Virgin Galactic, Mojave, Calif.
– Whittinghill Aerospace LLC, Camarillo, Calif.
– XCOR, Mojave, Calif.
Is the Moon a business opportunity? According to Dr. Barney Pell, “it’s one of the biggest business opportunities in history.”
According to Pell, an angel investor and computer scientist and Vice Chairman and Chief Technology Officer of Moon Express, Inc., platinum metals strewn across the lunar surface from asteroid impacts could be worth many billions more than the cost of retrieving them.
Pell expresses his views in this short interview by Forbes.com:
Moon Express was selected as a participant in NASA’s $30M Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD) program and is a candidate for the Google Lunar X-Prize.
Although the details of the design of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) have yet to be released, significant information about the schedule and cost is leaking out, in particular in the following two recent articles:
NASA has selected four companies to develop concepts for storing and transferring cryogenic propellants in space. These capabilities are important for the agency’s future deep space human exploration missions.
The selected companies, pending successful contract negotiations, are:
– Analytical Mechanics Associates Inc. Hampton, Va.
– Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation, Boulder, Colo.
– The Boeing Company, Huntington Beach, Calif.
– Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colo.
The awards total approximately $2.4 million with a maximum individual contract award of $600,000. Each company will provide a final report to help define a mission concept to demonstrate the cryogenic fluid management technologies, capabilities and infrastructure required for sustainable, affordable human presence in space.
Storing cryogenic propellants such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen in space for long periods of time with minimal boil-off is critical for deep space human exploration. The mission concept studies will identify technology gaps and look at innovative technical solutions to develop cryogenic propulsion systems and depots.
NASA will use the studies to plan and implement a future flight demonstration mission that will test and validate key capabilities and technologies. NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program is funding the studies. The Space Technology Office at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is managing the contracts.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has made numerous public statements about SpaceX plans to send humans to Mars in the next 10 to 20 years (e.g. see Discovery News and PC Magazine). The most recent statement was at an August 1 meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) meeting in San Diego. A video of the Q & A session is below.
13-minute video of Q & A session at AIAA meeting with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, August 1, 1011:
As market competition for space access heats up, there is a renewed interest in air-breathing technology. At the same time, remarkable launch cost reductions in more conventional boosters are imminent due to the efforts of SpaceX and other firms.
It is beneficial to everyone to explore alternate technological paths, since no one can predict which paths will pan out and produce an economical and reliable vehicle. Most or all of the concepts currently under consideration use winged vehicles to avoid vertical takeoffs and to reduce the required engine size for takeoff. Work on more advanced concepts is also underway.
Currently, two countries, Japan and India, are in the planning stage while the British company Reaction Engines will soon begin a major test of critical engine components of its Skylon vehicle concept.