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NASA commercials can signal a paradigm shift for deep-space travel



NASA now describes the idea of ​​using commercial rockets to launch a critical mission around the Moon next year rather than using the massive rocket that the agency has been building for the last decade. Such heavy changes are not just upend flight plans for this particular mission, but it can also have a big implication on how ambitious space travel programs are taking place in the future.

The force for this new commercial focus is to keep the agency's launching schedule. The NASA rocket, Space Launch System, or SLS, takes longer to take than expected and probably will not be ready to fly through the current target launch date of June 2020, while other commercials vehicles on the market are ready to fly now

Making this revision would not be a simple substitution. NASA does not need a commercial rocket but two to fulfill the mission. The agency will also need to develop new technologies and learn how to piece together some vehicles in space to ensure that its mission can do it all the way to the Moon.

This is a process that will take a lot of time and effort, and there is no guarantee that this will be done next year. But if NASA can pull off the monumental transfer to commercial vehicles, the agency may only display a new way of traveling in the deep space that relies on the many launches of smaller vehicles and does not necessarily require of huge rockets to succeed. Finally NASA can save a lot of time and money, releasing funds to make more ambitious things.

Space tugs

In this upcoming mission, NASA wants to send two heavy spacecraft on a three-week journey around the Moon next year: an empty capsule crew called Orion and a piece of cylindrical hardware that provides power and capsule support called the European Service Module. Together, the two vehicles require a lot of fuel to break the gravity of the Earth and reach the Moon's extreme distance. SLS is a very powerful ability to send the pair all the way to that distance at a launch.

But if NASA decides to fly commercially, no vehicle is available today enough to send the same Orion and its modules together around the Moon. The two most powerful commercial rockets in the US include SpaceX & # 39; s Falcon Heavy and Delta IV Heavy from the United Launch Alliance. While both are amazing vehicles, neither can match what SLS will do when it is complete.

SpaceX and ULA

That's why two rockets need. A rocket launches Orion and the European Service Module together in the Earth's orbit where they will actually remain "parked" for a bit. Another rocket will then launch what is known as a peak space, which is essentially another rocket with its own fuel and engine attached. The peak and the Orion are together in the orbit, and the engine of the fire will ignite, which will move the vehicles up to the Moon. "It's like a tractor on a farm that got trailer or farm equipment," Dallas Bienhoff, founder of Cislunar Space Development Company, focused on building a deep space infrastructure, told The Verge . "It's a functional unit."

This concept of using space for deep space travels has been spoken for decades. NASA began to study the concept in the 1960's and & # 39; 70, with NASA officials describing them as necessary for "speeding up other bodies in space." Finally, the upper parts of the rocket can be considered space spaces, as they push the payloads into their intended orbits. However, space tugs can be launched on their own, left in space to attach to other vehicles and walk them where they need to go.

Space tugs can change how NASA takes the deep space of human missions over decades. "One of the issues we have as a space industry, which leads us to the Space Launch System, we insist on putting all the masses on every mission in a single launch," says Bienhoff, who also researches technologies needed for space tugs in Boeing. Launching all your hardware in this way gets complicated. Earth's gravitational pull is relatively strong, so the transmission of large equipment away from our planet requires so much energy, and, therefore, a lot of extra fuel. Taking all gasoline in the galaxy requires a huge rocket, and the larger your rocket gets, the more fuel you need to lift both the rocket and the cargo off of the Earth. The cycle goes, with larger and larger amounts of freight requiring larger rocket for deep space.


An artistic rendering of future SLS.
Image: NASA

more expensive to launch. And the cost will definitely be a problem for SLS. It is estimated that NASA spent $ 14 billion over the past decade to build rocket, and the vehicle has not yet ended. Once completed, it is expected to launch only once or twice a year for $ 1 billion flights. In comparison, Delta IV Heavy costs $ 350 million per launch while Falcon Heavy starts under just $ 100 million. The two launches of either of these vehicles are well worth it under a SLS launch.

Space tugs can also help save cost in the future by only staying in space when their tugs are over. For example, a ringing device that drags hardware in the Moon can travel back to the low Earth orbit and wait for a refill. Another rocket can carry propellants from Earth, dock to haul, and transfer gasoline. That allows the space to drag dragging some other things into deep space, which is a task that can be done over and over, saving on extra launches.

In-space assembly

Of course, another skill required for all this work is a way to dock the tugs. NASA overseer Jim Bridenstine recognizes that crew capsule Orion, as it is designed today, does not have the ability to perform and dock with music. "Between today and June of 2020, we have to do that with the truth," he said during a Senate hearing, which refers to gambling.

However, this type of -Docking is not a novel skill. The Docking of Russia's Soyuz has been automatically in the International Space Station, bringing crew to the orbiting lab. SpaceX Crew Dragon only showed the ability to dock with ISS on a recent flight test with no crew input, using a suite of sensors and lasers to get closer and gently pump on a port outside the station. "The LIDAR and machine vision systems used for the Crew Dragon for autonomously dock stations are some of the sensors you can use to do manufacturing and assembly in space," Andrew Rush, CEO and president of Made In Space, a company that develops 3D printing methods and builds space, tells The Verge .


SpaceX of the Crew Dragon automatically docked at the International Space Station for the first time on March 4.
Photo: NASA

the pieces together in space allow engineers to get around of big rockets, too. Rather than sending everything to one piece, you can launch smaller pieces and then connect the hardware together once it is in orbit. That way, you do not have to completely build your spacecraft on the ground first. This is a problem for some complex missions, such as the NASA space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, which does not exactly fit within the rocket it launches. The spacecraft is very large and complex that it must be launched in space that is folded and then unfold in the course of two weeks. If this process goes, the telescope can not work properly in space, which ends with over $ 9.66 billion of missions.

But there is an in-space conference or adaptive manufacturing in the universe, there is no need to build a whole car on Earth first. "By spreading equipment within a few launches, and then using in-space manufacturing and assembly, we can accomplish this in a more effective way than if we were launching this type of monolithic spacecraft," says Rush . [19659026] Risks

All these changes have a price, though. Docking and in-space assemblies are considered dangerous maneuvers, says Bridenstine. "The docking crewed vehicle on Earth orbiting to get to the Moon adds to the complexity and risk of being undesirable," he wrote in a memo to NASA employees. Additionally, launching hardware on pieces means many rockets are needed for a deep space mission, and it does not sit properly with some people. Some experts and lawmakers declare that performing more launches opens more opportunities for risk because one of the launches may fail and miss the mission. "The committee's perspective is to be let out, and we'll walk a lot … compared to the moment," Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) this week during the hearing of the cultural science committee.

Using commercial launch vehicles are not easy for this mission, either. Currently, engineers prove to Orion for upcoming launch, running simulations based on the SLS design. To trade in commercial vehicles, they need to store all that work and start running new simulations based on data from new vehicles. It also completely changes the flight profile, which requires additional work to prepare. "If a change in the profile's mission, which seems unavoidable given the lower capabilities of every other vehicle compared to the SLS, there are many unrelated jobs," an employee of Lockheed Martin who works in Orion, who refuses to speak speaking to the public in the case of retaliation, tells The Verge . So the meeting on the date of the launch of June 2020 is unlikely.

Then there is a political opposition that will definitely prevent this change from taking place. Lawmakers, especially those from Alabama where the SLS builds, is likely to fight to keep Orion's car on a massive NASA rocket. And since Congress agrees with NASA's budget and pushes how the agency can use federal funds, lawmakers may order Orion to remain in the SLS.

In making this change, NASA has an opportunity to present a completely new kind of strategy for sending people into deep space – an unprecedented one. While launching the pieces can be more complex, it can save money and time, which is two things that NASA does not have in abundance. Perhaps the future NASA's Moon's mission does not depend on huge rocket, but smaller vehicles launch more often and do the same tasks.


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