Aerojet Rocketdyne Tests Out its New Advanced Ion Engine System

When it comes to the next generation of space exploration, a number of key technologies are being investigated. In addition to spacecraft and launchers that will be able to send astronauts farther into the Solar System, NASA and other space agencies are also looking into new means of propulsion. Compared to conventional rockets, the goal is to create systems that offer reliable thrust while ensuring fuel-efficiency.
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Lockheed Martin Shows off its new Space Habitat

Artist illustration of Habitation Module. Credit: Lockheed Martin

In their pursuit of returning astronauts to the Moon, and sending crewed missions to Mars, NASA has contracted with a number of aerospace companies to develop all the infrastructure it will need. In addition to the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft – which will fly the astronauts into space and see them safety to their destinations – they have teamed up with Lockheed Martin and other contractors to develop the Deep Space Gateway.

This orbiting lunar habitat will not only facilitate missions to and from the Moon and Mars, it will also allow human beings to live and work in space like never before. On Thursday, August 16th, Lockheed Martin provided a first glimpse of what one the of habitats aboard the Deep Space Gateway would look like. It all took place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where attendees were given a tour of the habitat prototype.

At it’s core, the habitat uses the Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), a refurbished module designed by the Italian Space Agency that dates back to the Space Shuttle era. Like all MPLMs, the Donatello is a pressurized module that was intended to carry equipment, experiments and supplies to and from the International Space Station aboard the Space Shuttle.

While the Donatello was never sent into space, Lockheed Martin has re-purposed it to create their prototype habitat. Measuring 6.7 meters (22 feet) long and 4.57 meters (15 feet) wide, the pressurized capsule is designed to house astronauts for a period of 30 to 60 days. According to Bill Pratt, the program’s manager, it contains racks for science, life support systems, sleep stations, exercise machines, and robotic workstations.

The team also relied on “mixed-reality prototyping” to create the prototype habitat, a process where virtual and augmented reality are used to solve engineering issues in the early design phase. As Pratt explained in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, their design makes optimal use of limited space, and also seeks to reuse already-build components:

“You think of it as an RV in deep space. When you’re in an RV, your table becomes your bed and things are always moving around, so you have to be really efficient with the space. That’s a lot of what we are testing here… We want to get to the moon and to Mars as quickly as possible, and we feel like we actually have a lot of stuff that we can use to do that.”

This habitat is one of several components that will eventually go into creating the Deep Space Gateway. These will include the habitat, an airlock, a propulsion module, a docking port and a power bus, which together would weigh 68 metric tonnes (75 US tons). This makes it considerably smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), which weighs in at a hefty 408 metric tonnes (450 US tons).

Artist's impression of the Deep Space Gateway, currently under development by Lockheed Martin. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the Deep Space Gateway, currently under development by Lockheed Martin. Credit: NASA

Moreover, the DSG is one of several components that will be used to return astronauts to the Moon and to Mars. As noted, these include the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful launch vehicle since the Saturn V (the rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), which will house the crew.

However, for their planned missions to Mars, NASA is also looking to develop the Deep Space Transport and the Mars Base Camp and Lander. The former calls for a reusable vehicle that would rely on a combination of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) and chemical propulsion to transport crews to and from the Gateway, whereas the latter would orbit Mars and provide the means to land on and return from the surface.

All told, NASA has awarded a combined $65 million to six contractors – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Space Systems, Orbital ATK, NanoRacks and Bigelow Aerospace – to build the habitat prototype by the end of the year. The agency will then review the proposals to determine which systems and interfaces will be incorporated into the design of the Deep Space Gateway.

In the meantime, development of the Orion spacecraft continues at the Kennedy Space Center, which recently had its heat shields attached. Next month, the European Space Agency (ESA) will also be delivering the European Service Module to the Kennedy Space Center, which will be integrated with the Orion crew module and will provide it with the electricity, propulsion, thermal control, air and water it will need to sustain a crew in space.

Artist’s impression of the Mars Base Camp in orbit around Mars. When missions to Mars begin, one of the greatest risks will be that posed by space radiation. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Once this is complete, NASA will begin the process of integrating the spacecraft with the SLS. NASA hopes to conduct the first uncrewed mission using the Orion spacecraft by 2020, in what is known as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), which will involve a crew performing a lunar flyby test and returning to Earth, is expected to take place by mid-2022.

Development on the the Deep Space Transport and the Mars Base Camp and Lander is also expected to continue. Whereas the Gateway is part of the first phase of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” plan – the “Earth Reliant” phase, which involves exploration near the Moon using current technologies – these components will be part of Phase II, which is on developing long-duration capabilities beyond the Moon.

If all goes according to plan, and depending on the future budget environment, NASA still hopes to mount a crewed mission to Mars by the 2030s.

Further Reading: Orlando Sentinel

NASA Moving Ahead with Deployment of Orion Capsule and Space Launch System

On October 11th, 2010, Congress signed the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act, which allocated the necessary funding for the space agency to commence preparations for itsJourney to Mars“. For the sake of mounting the first crewed missions to the Red Planet, several components were designated as being crucial. These included the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

Despite a recent announcement that NASA would be prioritizing a return to the Moon in the coming years, both the SLS and Orion are on track with the eventual goal of mounting crewed missions to Mars. In recent weeks, NASA conducted critical assessments of both components and their proposed launch schedules, and determined that they will be launched together in 2020 for the sake of conducting Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).

This test flight, which will be uncrewed, will test both systems and lay the foundations for the first crewed mission of the SLS and Orion. Known as Exploration Mission- 2 (EM-2), which was originally scheduled for 2021, this flight is now expected to take place in 2023. EM-1 will also serve to establish a regular cadence of mission launches that will take astronauts back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using a module based on Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV). Credit: NASA

The recent review came on the heels of an earlier assessment where NASA evaluated the cost, risk and technical factors of adding crew to the mission. This review was initiated as a result of the crew study and the challenges related to building the core stage of the SLS. Foremost among these was the recent tornado damage caused to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the SLS is currently being built.

On top of that, there are also the challenges related to the manufacture and supply of the first Orion Service Module. This module, which is being developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), serves as the Orion’s primary power and propulsion component, until it is discarded at the end of each mission. During the summer of 2016, the design of the Service Module was also the subject of a critical design review, and passed.

After conducting their review, NASA reaffirmed the original plan to fly the EM-1 uncrewed. As acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced in a recent NASA press release:

“While the review of the possible manufacturing and production schedule risks indicate a launch date of June 2020, the agency is managing to December 2019. Since several of the key risks identified have not been actually realized, we are able to put in place mitigation strategies for those risks to protect the December 2019 date.”

In addition, NASA has established new production performance milestones to address a key issue identified by the review, which was scheduling risks. Based on lesson learned from first-time builds, NASA and its contractors have adopted new measures to optimize building plans which will ensure flexibility – specifically if contractors are unable to deliver on schedule.

At this juncture, NASA is on track to develop the new deep space exploration systems that will take astronauts back to the Moon and beyond. Cost assessments for EM-1, which include the SLS and ground systems, are currently within their original targets. By June 2020, NASA estimates that cost overruns will remain within a 15% limit for the SLS and just slightly above for the ground systems.

As part of the review, NASA also considered when the test of the Orion’s launch abort system (which needs to happen ahead of EM-1) would take place – which they chose to move up to April 2019. Known as Ascent-Abort 2, this test will validate the launch abort system’s ability to land the crew safely during descent, and ensure that the agency can remain on track for a crewed flight in 2023.

To build the SLS and Orion, NASA is relying on several new and advanced manufacturing techniques. These include additive manufacturing (3-D printing), which is being used to fashion more than 100 parts for the Orion spacecraft. NASA is also using a technique known as self-reaction friction stir welding to join the two largest core stages of the rocket, which are the thickest structures ever joined using this technique.

Space Launch System (SLS) Block 1 Expanded View. Credit: NASA

Integration of the first service module is well under way in Bremen, Germany, with work already starting on the second. This is taking place at the Airbus integration room, where crews on eight-hour shifts are busy installing more than 11 km (6.8 mi) of cables that will connect the module’s central computers to everything from solar planes and fuel systems to the module’s engines and air and water systems.

These crews also finished installing the Orion’s 24 orientation thrusters recently, which complement the eight larger engines that will back up the main engine. The complex design of the module’s propulsion system requires that some 1100 welds be completed, and only 173 remain. At present, the ESA crews are aiming to finish work on the Orion and ship it to the USA by the summer of 2018.

As far as the assembly of the SLS is concerned, NASA has completed welding on all the major structures to the rocket stages is on track to assemble them together. Once that is complete, they will be able to complete an engine test that will fire up the four RS-25 engines on the core stage simultaneously – the EM-1 “green run”. When EM-1 takes place, the launch will be supported by ground systems and crews at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The agency is also developing a Deep Space Gateway (DSG) concept with Roscosmos and industry partners like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. This space station, which will be placed in orbit around the Moon, will facilitate missions to the lunar surface, Mars, and other locations deeper into the Solar System. Other components currently under consideration include the Deep Space Transport, and the Martian Basecamp and Lander.

These latter two components are what will allow for missions beyond the Earth-Moon system. Whereas the combination of the SLS, Orion and the DSG will allow for renewed lunar missions (which have not taken place since the Apollo Era) the creation of a Deep Space Transport and Martian Basecamp are intrinsic to NASA’s plans to mount a crewed mission to the Red Planet by the 2030s.

But in the meantime, NASA is focused on the first test flight of the Orion and the SLS, which will pave the way towards a crewed mission in a few years’ time. As William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, indicated:

“Hardware progress continues every day for the early flights of SLS and Orion. EM-1 will mark a significant achievement for NASA, and our nation’s future of human deep space exploration. Our investments in SLS and Orion will take us to the Moon and beyond, advancing American leadership in space.”

For almost forty years, no crewed spaceflights have been conducted beyond Low-Earth Orbit. And with the retiring of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has lost the ability to conduct domestic launches. For these reasons, the past three presidential administrations have indicated their commitment to develop the necessary tools to return to the Moon and send astronauts to Mars.

Not only will this restore the United State’s leadership in space exploration, it also will open up new venues for human exploration and create new opportunities for collaboration between nations and between federal agencies and industry partners. And be sure to check out this video showcases NASA’s plans for Deep Space Exploration:

Further Reading: ESA, NASA

Lockheed Martin Unveils Details of their Proposed Base Camp for Mars

Before NASA can mount its proposed “Journey to Mars“, which will see astronauts set foot on the Red Planet for the first time in history, a number of logistical and technical issues need to be addressed first. In addition to a launch vehicle (the Space Launch System), a crew capsule (the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle), and a space station beyond the Moon (the Deep Space Gateway), the astronauts will also need a space habitat in orbit of Mars.

To build this habitat, NASA has reached out to its long-time contractor, Lockheed Martin. And on Saturday, September 28th, at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia, the aerospace company revealed new details about its Mars Base Camp. When NASA’s proposed crewed mission to Mars takes place in the 2030s, this base will be the outpost from which crews will conduct research on the Martian surface.

The details revealed at the conference included how their proposed base camp aligns with other key components of NASA’s Mars mission, which Lockheed Martin is also working with NASA to develop. These include the Deep Space Gateway positioned in cislunar orbit, and a Mars surface lander – a reusable, single-stage craft capable of descending to the Martian surface from orbit.

Diagram of Lockheed Martin’s Mars Base Camp. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Along with NASA’s SLS and Orion spacecraft, these vital pieces of infrastructure will allow for not just one, but repeated crewed mission to Mars. As Lisa Callahan – the vice president and general manager of Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin – said in the course of the company’s presentation at the IAC:

“Sending humans to Mars has always been a part of science fiction, but today we have the capability to make it a reality. Partnered with NASA, our vision leverages hardware currently in development and production. We’re proud to have Orion powered-on and completing testing in preparation for its Exploration Mission-1 flight and eventually its journey to Mars.”

Overall, the purpose of the Mars Base Camp is very simple. Basically, it consists of an orbital outpost where scientist-astronauts will be transported to after leaving Earth and flying from the Deep Space Gateway into orbit around Mars. From this base, crews will be able to conduct real-time scientific exploration of the Martian atmosphere, followed by missions to the surface.

As Lockheed Martin’s indicates on their website, the major components of their base camp will be launched separately. Some will be pre-positioned in orbit around Mars ahead of time while others will be assembled in cis-lunar space for the journey to Mars. In the end, six astronauts will launch on an Orion spacecraft – which serves as the heart of the Mars Base Camp interplanetary ship – and assemble all the component in orbit around Mars.

Artist’s impression of Lockheed Martin’s proposed Mars Lander. Credit: Lockheed Martin

This is also consistent with Phase II and Phase III of NASA’s “Journey to Mars”, which are known as the “Proving Ground” and “Earth Independent” phases, respectively. Phase II calls for a series of missions to test the capabilities of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, and deep space habitats, as well as multiple crewed missions and spacewalks in cislunar space.

Phase III will then consist of the refinement and testing of entry, descent, and landing techniques, as well as in-situ resource utilization. Once these are complete, Phase III will culminate with crewed missions to Martian orbit, followed by landed missions to the Martian surface. The first mission involving the Mars Base Camp are intended to be an extended stay in orbit around the Red Planet.

This will allow astronauts to gain vital experience with extended operations far from Earth and its protective magnetic field. This will be followed by the arrival of the surface lander, which would allow the astronauts to land and conduct missions on the surface. The lander would be mated to the base camp between missions and descend to the surface using supersonic retro-propulsion.

The lander also relies on Orion avionics and systems as its command deck, and is powered by engines that use a liquid-hydrogen/liquid-oxygen propellant. Each mission to the surface would likely last two weeks at a time and consist of four astronauts conducting research and collecting samples for return to the base camp. The crews would then take off in the Lander and return it the station, where it would refuel and restock for future missions.

Artist illustration of Habitation Module. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Artist illustration of Habitation Module. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Since the lander’s fuel can be manufactured from water, it is likely that a source of subsurface water ice will also come into play during these surface missions. If the necessary infrastructure is brought to the surface, it could even be used for the in-situ manufacture of rocket fuel. As such, it is understandable by locating a source of subsurface water ice is a major focal point of future NASA and SpaceX missions.

As noted, the Mars Base Camp is aligned with other mission components, which include the Deep Space Gateway. Here too, NASA has contracted Lockheed Martin to develop the concept’s architecture. This past summer, the company was awarded a Phase II contract by NASA to create designs for this space habitat, which is intended to build on the lessons learned from the International Space Station (ISS).

The contract was awarded as part of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnership (NextSTEP) program, which NASA launched in 2014. In April of 2016, during the second NextSTEP Broad Agency Announcement (NextSTEP-2), NASA selected six U.S. companies to begin building full-sized ground prototypes and concepts for this deep space habitat.

In the end, the Deep Space Gateway and the Mars Base Camp will allow for the development and testing of other space systems in cis-lunar space before sending them on to Mars. The Gateway will also allow astronauts to conduct lunar research and live and work in orbit around the Moon for months at a time. This will come in handy once they begin making transits to and from Mars.

NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

Ever since NASA first announced its proposal for a “Journey to Mars” in 2010, scientists, space enthusiasts and the general public ave eagerly awaited the release of key details. Given that such a mission comes with major technical and logistical challenges, how they intend to address them has been a major point of interest. Other points of interest have included timelines as well as the vehicles, systems and technologies that would be involved.

This latest announcement is just one of many to be made by NASA and its partners in recent months. As the “Journey to Mars” slowly approaches, more and more details have become available, and what this mission will look like has slowly taken form. As Lockheed Martin states on their website:

Since the first Viking lander touched down on Mars 40 years ago, humanity has been fascinated with the Red Planet. Lockheed Martin built NASA’s first Mars lander and has been a part of every NASA Mars mission since. We’re ready to deliver the future, faster. Mars is closer than you think. We’re ready to accelerate the journey.”

And be sure to check out this promotional video about the Mars Base Camp, courtesy of Lockheed Martin:

Further Reading: Lockheed Martin, LM – Mars Base Camp

Where Do We Go Next? Building the Deep Space Gateway

Where do we go next? The Deep Space Gateway


I don’t have to tell you that the vision of human space exploration in the Solar System has kind of stalled. Half a century ago, humans set foot on the Moon, and we haven’t been back since. Instead, we’ve thoroughly explored every cubic meter of low Earth orbit, going around and around the Earth. In fact, back in 2016, the International Space Station celebrated 100,000 orbits around the Earth.

The space shuttle was the last US vehicle capable of taking humans up into orbit, and it was retired back in 2011. So things look pretty bleak for sending humans out to explore the Solar System.

Earlier this year, however, NASA announced their next great step in their human space exploration efforts: the Deep Space Gateway. And if all goes well, we’ll see humans living and working farther from Earth, and for longer periods than ever before.

After the space shuttle program was wrapped up, NASA had a bunch of challenges facing it. Perhaps the greatest of these, was what to do with the enormous workforce that built and maintained the space shuttle fleet. Thousands were laid off, and moved to other aerospace jobs and other industries, but the space agency worked to develop the next big launch system after the shuttle.

Originally there were the Ares rockets, as part of the Constellation Program, but these were canceled and replaced with the Space Launch System. We’ve done a whole episode on the SLS, but the short version is that this new rocket will be capable of lifting more cargo into orbit than any rocket ever.

The first version, known as the Block 1 will be capable of lofting 70,000 kg into low-Earth orbit, while the upcoming Block 2 will be able to carry 130,000 kg into LEO – more than the mighty Saturn V rocket.

What are you going to do with a rocket this powerful? Launch new space telescopes, robotic missions to the outer Solar System, and put humans into space, of course.

In addition to the SLS, NASA is also working on a new capsule, known as the Orion Crew Module. This Apollo-esque capsule will be capable of carrying a crew of 4 astronauts out beyond low-Earth orbit, and returning them safely back to Earth.

But if you can send astronauts out beyond low-Earth orbit, where will they go?

Artist's impression of the Deep Space Gateway, currently under development by Lockheed Martin. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the Deep Space Gateway, currently under development by Lockheed Martin. Credit: NASA

The Deep Space Gateway.

The plan is to put a brand new space station into a cis-lunar orbit. Specifically, it’s known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit. It won’t actually be orbiting the Moon, but it’ll be on an orbit that allows it to serve as a stepping stone to the Moon. Sort of a bridge between Lagrange points. This station will range in distance from 1,500 to 70,000 km from the Moon in a way that keeps it relatively easy to reach.

From the outside, it’ll look like a smaller version of the International Space Station, with a group of 4 pressurized modules connected together: a power module, habitation module, cargo logistics pod, and an EVA module.

Space inside the Gateway will be cramped, with astronauts needing to share their living quarters, reconfiguring the space as necessary. Seriously, the ISS is going to feel like a luxury hotel after spending time in the Gateway.

Artist illustration of Habitation Module. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Artist illustration of Habitation Module. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The station will be solar powered, with arrays providing 40 kW of energy. It’ll also have 12 kW ion thrusters which will be used for station keeping, as well as traditional hydrazine thrusters. The first habitation module will be capable of supplying the astronauts for 30-60 days, but a later cargo logistics pod will extend the length of missions.

Right now, there are a group of contractors being considered to build the Deep Space Gateway. The designs I’m showing you come from Lockheed Martin, but things could change.

The goal of the Deep Space Gateway will be to keep humans alive in space outside the Earth’s protective magnetosphere for at least a year, studying the effects of deep space on the human body.

But in the long term, the Gateway will serve as a stepping stone to Mars. The astronauts will assemble the future Deep Space Transport, a spacecraft that will carry humans to the Red Planet. But more on that later.

On the International Space Station, astronauts are protected by the Earth’s magnetosphere from solar radiation and cosmic rays. But on board the Deep Space Gateway, there’ll be no such protection. Instead, the station will need to be reinforced with radiation protection. At the same time, the region actually has less space junk, so it won’t need to same kind of micrometeorite protection.

In addition to being a science platform, the DSG will serve as a base of operations for exploring the Moon. In the near term, NASA is planning new lander and rover missions to the Moon. The Gateway could serve as a dock for missions blasting off from the Moon, where astronauts could unload science samples, and refurbish a rover for another mission down on the lunar surface.

Another intriguing idea is that the Deep Space Gateway could be used as a place to study samples from Mars without a risk of contaminating Earth. Under the current planetary contamination guidelines, samples from Mars need to be sterilized before they can be brought to Earth.

It’s hard to search for life in your samples, when you need to kill all life in your samples. But I’m sure the astronauts would be willing to take the risk of catching Martian flu for a chance to discover there’s life on Mars.

When will we actually see the Deep Space Gateway?

Not for a few years, sadly. Building the Gateway is going to require a few launches of the SLS, and there are already a bunch of missions queued up to use this new launcher.

SLS Block 1 Expanded View. Credit: NASA
SLS Block 1 Expanded View. Credit: NASA

The first launch of SLS will be an uncrewed test with an Orion capsule, sometime in 2019, known as EM-1. This will be followed by the launch of the Europa Clipper mission, also in 2019.

Once those missions are out of the way, the first crewed launch with SLS blasts off some time between 2021 and 2023. Designated as EM-2, this is when the construction of the Deep Space Gateway begins. 4 astronauts will spend 3 weeks beyond low Earth orbit, delivering the first module to the Deep Space Gateway: the Solar Power Electric Bus.

In 2024, EM-3 will have another crew of 4 blast off with the Deep Space Gateway’s Habitation Module. EM-4 should lift off by 2025 with the Logistics module. Finally, some time around 2026, mission EM-5 will deliver the station’s Airlock module.

SLS Block 2. Credit: NASA
SLS Block 2. Credit: NASA

What comes next? After the Deep Space Gateway, there’ll be the Deep Space Transport. If you’ve seen The Martian, think of the Hermes spacecraft that ferries the crew to and from Mars. The details are thin right now, but if all goes well, the pieces of the Transport will launch to the Gateway by 2027.

The various components will be assembled by the astronauts over the course of several launches, and once completed, the Deep Space Transport would make a series of 1-3 year missions to and from Mars. It’ll carry a crew of a six astronauts in a large habitation module and keep them alive for the journey.

The first mission could head out in 2033, with a human flyby of Mars. Side note, wouldn’t it be heartbreaking to get that close to Mars, and not actually be able to set foot on the surface? Anyway, future missions to Mars will include landings, and perhaps a visit to the SpaceX luxury Martian hotel where the astronauts can relax and apologize to each other for what they did when they all got space madness.

But this is so far in the future, it’s pretty hard to even wrap my mind around it yet.

Of course, these are all long term plans. And as I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, long term plans have a tendency of getting canceled. Who knows if the Deep Space Gateway actually get constructed, or if NASA will shift its support to private missions to Mars.

We’ll just have to stay tuned.