Engineering the future of space exploration

-August 16, 2016

EDN has been covering NASA for most of its 60 years, so now we’re looking ahead to what the future of space exploration might hold.

The days of disposal launchers may be approaching an end as a new group of entrepreneurial space companies seek to apply Silicon Valley innovation and scaling to human exploration of the solar system. Reusable launchers and other components along with novel propulsion technologies promise to reduce the cost of lifting the next generation of space "infrastructure" into Earth orbit. Meanwhile, some visionaries are proposing that heavy manufacturing and other human activities linked to climate change be moved off the Earth. In short, some see space infrastructure as a way to save our planet. Here's a survey of things to come.

Among the most compelling visions of the future of space exploration is a blueprint to save Earth posited by a technology pioneer with a record of doing what he says he will do. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, when not dominating online retail and public cloud markets, also runs a space startup called Blue Origin that has succeeded in launching a rocket called New Shepard and returning it to Earth in one piece. The demonstration was among the initial steps toward lowering the cost of lifting a pound of hardware into orbit. Blue Origin hopes to scale that capability over the next few years to greatly reduce space operations. Bezos hopes to one day develop a space-faring infrastructure intended to move heavy industry off the planet. According to this vision, Earth would be zoned "residential and light industrial." He declared, "I think you go to space to save Earth.”

Bezos, like his primary competitor in the frontiers of commercial space, Elon Musk, is thinking big. Big ideas and roll-up-sleeves engineering innovation will be required just as they were in the 1960s, to develop the infrastructure needed to save our planet. Bezos has articulated one such scenario. Musk plans to go farther.

The first step in Musk's plan to reach Mars is by demonstrating the ability to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the first privately built spaceship, the Dragon crew capsule. Shown above is the Dragon crew compartment.   

The first flights of the SpaceX Dragon crew ship to the International Space Station could begin as early as late 2017.

Meanwhile, Musk has announced plans to send an unmanned "Red Dragon" ship to the surface of Mars as early as 2018. However, nearly all of the systems needed to reach the Red Planet have yet to be tested. 

Artist’s conception of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at Bennu asteroid.

Meanwhile, exploration of the solar system continues with amazing machines providing mankind with a telepresence in environments still too harsh for humans. With NASA's Juno probe now orbiting Jupiter, the space agency's next interplanetary flight called OSIRIS-Rex (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer) is scheduled for launch in September. It will seek to return a sample from Bennu, a carbonaceous asteroid whose surface material, or regolith, may record the formation of our solar system. The spacecraft, shown above artist concept, should reach the asteroid in 2018 and return a sample to Earth in 2023.

These are radar images of asteroid 101955, otherwise known as Bennu. NASA also wants a closer look at the space rock that could hit Earth late in the 22nd century.

Advances in rocket propulsion have come in small increments since the Space Race of the 1960s, mostly combining liquid oxygen and propellants ranging from kerosene to methane and natural gas. A startup called Firefly Space Systems recently demonstrated a new engine that can be throttled using liquid oxygen and a refined kerosene propellant called RP-1. The new engine also can burn methane. The major advance is an "aerospike" engine configuration that uses wedge-shape engine nozzles to increase efficiency at different propellant pressures, according to Firefly.

Despite many plans on the drawing board, the US still relies heavily on Russian-built rocket engines to loft military and other satellites to orbit. With competition heating up in the commercial space sector, development of a new US-made engine is proceeding with fits and starts. Among the most promising is Blue Origin's BE-4 engine that uses cheaper liquefied natural gas fuel and is designed for reuse. It would replace Russian RD-180 engines currently used in Atlas V launches.

The 21st century version of the mighty Saturn V moon rocket has the mundane name Space Launch System, or SLS. (Given the politics behind the giant rocket, critics often refer to it as the "Senate Launch System.") The goal is a next-generation heavy launcher that can again take astronauts beyond Earth orbit and the moon, eventually to Mars. Repurposed space shuttle main engines have been tested, and the first launch of the new rocket is scheduled for the fall of 2018.

George Leopold, former executive editor of EE Times, is the author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom.

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