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NASA's commercialization could reflect a paradigm shift for deep-space travel t

NASA expects the idea of ​​using commercial rockets to launch a critical mission around the moon next year instead of using the huge rocket being built by the agency over the last decade. Not only would such a change succeed in flight plans for this particular mission, but it could also have major implications for how ambitious space travel programs are made in the future.

The motivation for this new commercial focus is to launch the agency's schedule. The NASA rocket, the Space Address System, or SLS, are doing much longer than expected and are unlikely to be ready for flight at the current June 2020 deadline, although there are other commercial vehicles on offer. the ready-to-fly market

This review is not a simple swap. NASA would only require one commercial rocket for the mission to take place. The agency will also need to develop new technologies and determine how to assemble certain vehicles in the space to ensure that its mission can make all the exit to the Moon.

It is a process that will take a lot of time and effort, and there is no guarantee that it can be done next year. However, if NASA can make this huge change to commercial vehicles, the agency can demonstrate a new deep space travel method that relies on the multiple addresses of smaller vehicles and does not require huge rockets to succeed. This could ultimately save a lot of time and money, providing money to do more ambitious things.

Space spaces

In the interest of this upcoming mission, NASA is trying to put two heavy spacecraft on a three-week journey around the Moon next year: empty capsules of the team called Orion and a piece cylindrical hardware providing power and support to the capsule known as the European Service Module. Together, both vehicles need a lot of fuel to break free from the gravity of the Earth and to reach the length of the moon. The SLS is so powerful that it can send both to that area in one address.

But if NASA decides on commercial trade, there's a vehicle available right now enough sail Orion and its module together to the neighborhood. The two most powerful commercial rockets in the United States include Falcon Heavy and SpaceX and Delta IV Heavy from the United Launch Alliance. While both are good vehicles, neither can do what the SLS will do when it is finished.

SpaceX and ULA

That's why two rocket would be needed. One Orion and the European Service Module would launch together in the Earth's orbit where they would essentially stay “parked”. Another rocket launched what is called a space dock, which is essentially another rocket with its own fuel and engine attached. The tug and Orion would hip up in orbit, and the engine would ignite, driving all the vehicles to the Moon. “It is like a tractor on a farm that pulls trailers or farm equipment,” says Dallas Bienhoff, founder of the Cislunar Space Development Company, which focuses on building a deep-space infrastructure, The Verge . “It's a driving unit.”

This concept of using space tugs for deep-space travel has tackled for many years. NASA began to study the concept in the 1960s and 70s, described by NASA's official officer as necessary to “give other bodies velocities in space.” Ultimately, the upper parts of rockets can be viewed as space torches, as these vehicles drive the pay load to their intended orbit. However, space tugs can be launched individually, stay in space to connect them to other vehicles and drive them when they need to.

Space tugs could change how NASA is doing its deep-space human missions for years. . “One of the issues we have as a space industry, put together by the Space Address System, we insist on putting all the mass against the mission at one launch,” says Bienhoff, who researched technologies required for a tug of war space at Boeing. If you send your hardware all the way you can be too good. The gravitational pull of the earth is very strong, so heavy equipment far from our planet requires extra power, and, subsequently, a lot of extra fuel. A large rocket is needed to get all that fuel in the space, and the more your rocket gets, the more fuel you need to raise the rocket and payload from the Earth. So the cycle goes, with larger amounts and more cargo requiring more rockets for deep space.

Artistic rendering SLS future.
Image: NASA

As rockets grow, they become more complex and expensive to launch. And the cost to the SLS is certainly a problem. It is estimated that NASA has spent $ 14 billion over the last decade to develop the rocket, and the vehicle has not yet been completed. When completed, it is expected that it will only run once or twice a year on a flight of about $ 1 billion. By contrast, the Delta IV Heavy costs about $ 350 million per launch and the Blue Heavy begins at just under $ 100 million. Only two of these two vehicles are expensive under one SLS address.

Space prediction could also help save cost in the future but stay in space when they are finished with their tugs. For example, a tug that drafts hardware to the Moon could then travel back to low-orbit of the Earth and wait for refilling. Then another rocket could bring propellers up from Earth, dock with tug, and transfer fuel over. This would allow the space force to pull out something else in a deep space, which he can do over and over again, saving on extra addresses.

Assembly within space

Of course, the other ability required to do all this to work with these tugs is a way. NASA's administrator, Jim Bridenstine, admitted that the Orion team capsule, as it is now designed, is not able to recreate and make a dock with a tug. “Between now and June 2020, we would have to do that,” he said during a Seanad hearing, referring to diving.

Presented is not a new practice. The Russian Soyuz capsule worked automatically with the International Space Station, bringing staff to the orbital laboratory. Crew DragonX SpaceX showed its ability to make a dock with the ISS on a recent test flight without input from the team, using a series of sensors and laser to come to an end and pull itself gently into a port outside the station. “The sensors you could use to manufacture and assemble in the space would be the LIDAR systems and machine videos used for Crew Dragon to make the station autonomous.” Andrew Rush, Chief Executive Officer and president Made in Space, a company developing 3D print and space building techniques, tells The Verge .

Crew Dragon SpaceX went automatically to the International Space Station on 4 March.
Photo: NASA

Engaging critically with pieces together in space can also turn around large rockets. Rather than putting everything up in one stretch, you can send small pieces and then connect the hardware together when it is in orbit. In this way, you do not need to build your spacecraft completely on the ground first. This was a problem for certain complex missions, such as the future NASA space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, which does not fit fully within the rocket it is launching. The spacecraft is so large and complex that it must launch it to the folded space and then deactivate it during a fortnight. If that process does not lapse, the telescope may not work properly in space, and eliminate a mission exceeding $ 9.66 billion.

But with an in-space assembly or manufacturing additives in space, the whole vehicle on Earth does not first need. “By spreading the equipment over a few addresses, and then using in-space manufacturing and assembly, we can do this in a much more cost effective way than if we launched that monolithic spacecraft,” Rush. [19659026] The risks

All these changes come at a price. Distribution and in-space assembly, according to Bridenstine, are considered to be a risk hazard. “The casting of vehicles in the Earth's orbit to reach the Moon adds complexity and undesirable risk,” he wrote in a memo to NASA employees. In addition, sending hardware in pieces means that rockets would be needed for a single global mission, and some people do not. Some experts and lawmakers argue that more launches will open up more opportunities for risk because one of the addresses would fail to jeopardize the mission. “The committee's view is that we will have a profound effect on each other…” said Rep Frank Lucas (R-OK) this week while listening to the House's scientific committee.

Using a commercial address there will also be no easy vehicles for this mission. Currently, engineers are verifying Orion for this upcoming launch, running simulations based on SLS design. In order to swap commercial vehicles, they would have to set aside all that work and start running new simulations based on data from the new vehicles. It would completely change the flight profile, for which additional work would have to be prepared. “If the mission profile changes, which is unavoidable due to the smallest capabilities of all other vehicles compared to SLS, much of that work is no longer relevant,” employee of Lockheed Martin working on Orion, did not want to speak in public in the retaliation, tells The Verge . So it is unlikely that the launch date will be in June 2020

Then there is a political opposition that will prevent change. this. It is likely that law makers in the Congress, especially those from Alabama where the SLS is being built, will deal with an Orion vehicle to keep the NASA giant rocket. And since Congress ultimately approves NASA's budget and approves how the agency can use federal funds, legal persons could mandate that Orion remains on SLS.

By making this change, NASA has the opportunity to demonstrate a whole new approach to sending people to a deep space – one that was not previously used. While launching in pieces may be more complex, it could save money and time, which is something that NASA does not have enough. The future NASA mission to the Moon may not depend on huge rockets, but with smaller, more frequent vehicles carrying out the same tasks.

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