NASA is preparing the most powerful rocket in world history to soon make its debut. Space Launch System (SLS) is a flexible design whose design evolved as testing continued. It’s capability is to launch a space vehicle laden with crew and cargo into the atmosphere as they commence a deep space mission. One such mission in the near future is for SLS to transport the Orion spacecraft then transfer its cargo and experiments into deep space. SLS is a technology that is safe, sustainable and provides astronauts the means to travel along a route of multiple destinations toward the grand prize, Mars.
The first SLS launch vehicle had a capacity of lifting over 70 tons beyond low-Earth orbit. It was the most powerful rocket that had ever been built. However, through its design evolution, it can now carry a load of over 143 tons making missions possible far out into our solar system.
Part of the cargo to be launched into space by SLS are the components and technology required for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). This will enable NASA to first test the capabilities of all the technologies involved in a manned Mars mission in a safe, unmanned, robotic mission. NASA’s Glenn Research Center is headquarters for the development of one of these technologies, the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) system. The plan is to use solar arrays to convert sunlight into electrical power that will charge atoms as a means of propelling the spacecraft. This propulsion system can potentially move massive loads of cargo slowly, yet efficiently. This type of propulsion system can save the taxpayers a lot of money, but we have to be a little more patient and expect missions to take a bit longer. The gringa’s okay with that because I for darn sure get a little sick and tired of everyone seeming to be in an all-fired hurry all the time. Makes me tired sometimes just watching folks knock themselves out so. The gringa just wants to say, “Hey, relax. Get there in one piece. Sit, have a drink. Chat. Don’t rush through life. Take time to enjoy life and appreciate the little things that get overlooked when you run like a bat outta hell whose tail is on fire. Most of the crap in life that’s screaming for attention can wait. I promise it will still be there an hour later or a day later. That’s what I tell my big, ol’ pile of dirty laundry every day as I casually stroll by. Works like a charm.” But, I digress, back to rockets.
One component of the SEP system is the Hall thruster. It uses ten times less propellant than traditional chemical rockets. When it was tested in a vacuum chamber it proved to be more efficient and have longer fuel life. Hall thrusters work by trapping electrons within a magnetic field. It then uses those electrons to ionize the propellant. This generates an electric field that accelerates the charged ions, creating a plasma exhaust plume that propels the spacecraft forward. Sounds like rocket science, to the gringa. I don’t understand a bit of that but I will trust that the scientists at NASA know exactly what they are doing.
This is all part of NASA’s progress toward its initiative to launch a Green Propellant Infusion Mission in 2016. This fuel will be tested in a small satellite. It is a non-toxic, high-performance “green” fuel that will hopefully replace the toxic hydrazine that is currently used. This will enable NASA to utilize lightweight, composite tanks on rockets which will significantly lower the weight of the load, improving efficiency and lowering costs.
If the unmanned ARM mission is successful, SEP could very well be the answer to deep space travel. For humans to achieve deep space missions, SEP may deliver on the very things necessary to accomplish the job. SEP can move huge cargo loads which solves the problem of supply shortages. SEP does not require massive quantities of fuel to be part of the cargo due to its solar energy facet. That solves the problem of being able to carry enough fuel to make a round trip to deep space. The robotic nature of ARM resolves the conundrum of creating multiple ports staged along the route to Mars. An SEP-powered unmanned spacecraft could deliver the cargo and vehicles necessary for longer manned missions into deep space where they would wait until crews arrived. Mars expeditionary crews would station hop on their way to Mars, refueling and resupplying as they went. The gringa falls asleep at night fantasizing of leapfrogging her way to the Red Planet when she’s old and arthritic and cranky and craves the natural pain relief of the weightlessness of deep space. Hey, a girl can dream, cain’t she?
Source & Photo credit: www.nasa.gov