NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars in the coming decade. This presents many challenges, not the least of which is the distance involved and the resulting health risks. To this end, they are investigating and investing in many technologies, ranging from life support and radiation protection to nuclear power and propulsion elements. A particularly promising technology is Nuclear-Thermal Propulsion (NTP), which has the potential to reduce transit times to Mars significantly. Instead of the usual one-way transit period of six to nine months, a working NTP system could reduce the travel time to between 100 and 45 days!
Lockheed Martin announced that NASA has ordered three more Orion spacecraft for future Artemis missions. The new order includes capsules for the Artemis VI, VII and VII missions, which are expected to launch in the late 2020s to early 2030s. The three additional capsules are on order for $1.99 billion.
This will likely come as a surprise to no one who has closely watched the development of NASA’s next giant rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), but it’s going to be expensive to use. Like, really expensive – to the tune of $4.1 billion per launch, according to the NASA Inspector General. That’s over double the original expected launch cost.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), over 4,000 operational satellites are currently in orbit around Earth. According to some estimates, this number is expected to reach as high as 100,000 by the end of this decade, including telecommunication, internet, research, navigation, and Earth Observation satellites. As part of the “commercialization” of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) anticipated in this century, the presence of so many satellites will create new opportunities (as well as hazards).
The presence of these satellites will require a great deal of mitigation (to prevent collisions), servicing, and maintenance. For example, the San Francisco-based startup Orbit Fab is working to create all the necessary technology for orbital refueling services for satellites. To help realize this goal, industry giant Lockheed Martin recently announced that they are investing in Orbit Fab’s “Gas Stations in Space™” refueling technology.
What happens when you cross one of the world’s largest defense contractors with one of the world’s largest automobile manufacturers? Apparently, you get an electrically powered autonomous lunar rover. At least that is the fruit of a new collaboration between Lockheed Martin (LM) and General Motors (GM).
When NASA sends astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) will be what takes them there. To build these next-generation spacecraft, NASA contracted aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Combined with the massive Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft will allow for long-duration missions beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for the first time in over 50 years.
On Monday, Sept. 23rd, NASA and Lockheed Martin announced that they had finalized a contract for the production and operations of six missions using the Orion spacecraft, with the possibility of up to twelve being manufactured in total. This fulfills the requirements for NASA’s Project Artemis and opens the possibility for further missions to destinations like Mars and other locations in deep-space.
In the coming decades, NASA has ambitious plans to send astronauts back to the Moon and conduct the first crewed mission to Mars. In order to accomplish these lofty goals, the agency is investing in cutting-edge technology and partnering with major aerospace companies to create the necessary spacecraft and mission components.
One such component, which will allow astronauts to travel to and from the lunar surface, is Lockheed Martin’s concept for a reusable lunar lander. The concept was presented today at the 69th annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Bremen, Germany, where space agency and industry experts were treated to the latest in space exploration advancements.
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).
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.
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.
NASA has a lot of experience when it comes to developing supersonic aircraft. In fact, testing supersonic craft was how NASA got its start, back when it still known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Beginning with the Bell X-1, the tradition of using X-planes and other experimental aircraft continues, and has progressed to hypersonic scramjets and spaceplanes (like the X-37).
And now, for the first time in decades, NASA is looking to develop a new supersonic aircraft. But whereas previous aircraft were developed for the sake of breaking speed records, the purpose of this latest X-plane is to create a Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST). NASA hopes that this craft will provide crucial data that could enable the development of commercial supersonic air travel over land.
To that end, NASA awarded a $247.5 million contract to Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company on April 2nd to build the X-plane and deliver it to the agency’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California by the end of 2021. As Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics, indicated in a recent NASA press release, this project is like revisiting the old days of NASA research.
“It is super exciting to be back designing and flying X-planes at this scale,” he said. “Our long tradition of solving the technical barriers of supersonic flight to benefit everyone continues.”
In the past, supersonic commercial flights were available, for people who could afford them at least. These included the British-French Concorde (which operated until 2003) and the Russian Tupolev Tu-144 (retired in 1983). However, these craft were incapable of conducting supersonic flights over land because of how breaking the sound barrier would generate a sonic boom – which are extremely loud and potentially harmful.
As a result, current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations ban supersonic flight over land. The purpose of this latest aircraft – known as the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator – is to conduct supersonic flights that create sonic booms that are so quiet, they will be virtually unnoticeable to people on the ground. The key is how the X-plane’s uniquely-shaped hull generates supersonic shockwaves.
With conventional aircraft designs, shockwaves coalesce as they expand away from the airplane’s nose and tail, resulting in two distinct sonic booms. In contrast, the X-plane’s hull design sends shockwaves away from the aircraft in a way that prevents them from coming together. Instead, much weaker shockwaves are sent to the ground that would be heard as a series of soft thumps.
Since the 1960s, NASA has been testing the idea using vehicles like the F-5E Tiger II fighter jet. This aircraft, which flew test flights in 2003-2004 as part of NASA’s Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration program, had a uniquely-shaped nose and demonstrated that boom-reducing theory was sound. More recent flight testing, wind-tunnel testings, and advanced computer simulations tools have also indicated that the technology will work.
As Peter Coen, NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology project manager, stated:
“We’ve reached this important milestone only because of the work NASA has led with its many partners from other government agencies, the aerospace industry and forward-thinking academic institutions everywhere.”
The X-plane’s configuration will be based on a QueSST design that Lockheed Martin developed in 2016 in partnership with NASA, and which completed testing in a wind tunnel at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in 2017 . The proposed aircraft will measure 28.65 meters (94 feet) long, have a wingspan of about 9 meters (29.5 feet), and have a takeoff weight of 14,650 kg (32,300 lbs).
Based on the company’s design, the X-plane will be powered by a single General Electric F414 engine, the same used by F/A-18E/F fighters. It will be flown by a single pilot and have a top speed of Mach 1.5 (1590 km; 990 mph) and a speed of Mach 1.42 (1513 km; 940 mph) at a cruising altitude of 16764 meters (55,000 feet).
As Shin indicated, the development of the X-plan is a joint effort involving all of NASA’s aeronautics research centers:
“There are so many people at NASA who have put in their very best efforts to get us to this point. Thanks to their work so far and the work to come, we will be able to use this X-plane to generate the scientifically collected community response data critical to changing the current rules to transforming aviation!”
The program is divided into three phases which are tentatively scheduled to run from 2019 to 2025. Phase One, which will run from 2019 to 2021, will consist of a critical design review in preparation for construction. If successful, construction will begin at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Work‘s facility in Palmdale, followed by a series of test flights and culminating with the delivery of the craft to NASA.
Phase Two, scheduled to begin in 2022, will consist of NASA flying the X-plane in the supersonic test range over Edwards Air Force Base in southern California to see if it is safe for operations in the National Airspace System. Phase Three, running from 2023 to 2025, will consist of the first community response test flights (staged from Armstrong Air Force Base) followed by further test flights over four to six U.S. cities.
The data gathered from these community response tests will then be delivered to the FAA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – currently targeted for delivery in 2025 – so they can adopt new rules based on perceived sound levels. If the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator should prove to be effective, commercial supersonic flights over land may finally become feasible.
And be sure to enjoy this video of the X-plane’s development, courtesy of NASA:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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: