By Cameron Chai
NASA has awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to develop powerful solar electric propulsion flight concepts for human exploration and deep space missions.
Northrop Grumman has collaborated with Department of Aerospace Engineering of the University of Michigan and Sandia National Laboratories to develop a technology roadmap for NASA's near-term space missions. The Department of Aerospace Engineering's contribution for Northrop Grumman will be led by Professor Alec D. Gallimore.
NASA's objective is to design a powerful solar electric propulsion system for powering a space tugboat that is capable of transporting satellites to geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) from low earth orbit (LEO), thus reducing fuel consumption and secondary booster expenditures. With a solar-powered vehicle, spacecraft can be launched to LEO and then transported to GEO, thus enabling the transportation of a heavier payload to GEO by utilizing current launch vehicles.
The study is intended to design mission concepts that will utilize technologies at NASA Technology Readiness Level 5 or higher, thus allowing the validation of a basic prototype in a simulating space and initial integration with other operational systems at some level. Cleveland, Ohio-based NASA Glenn Research Center will be the manager of the project. Besides myriad technology development activities, the research center develops advanced technologies for spacecraft.
According to Jim Munger, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems' solar electric propulsion program manager, the company together with its partners is involved in the development of alternatives to the usual solar array method. The company's concept can be scaled up to ³300 kW and has the capability for decreasing the complexity and cost of high-power needs.