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NASA agrees to work with SpaceX on orbital refueling technology



  NASA concept for a propellant depot in space.
Enlarge / NASA concept for a propellant depot in space.

NASA

On Tuesday afternoon, NASA announced 19 new partnerships with 10 US companies to provide more cutting-edge technology for space production. There were many useful technical ideas here, such as precision landing systems and robotic equipment farms, but the most interesting might have been SpaceX and two of NASA's field offices-the Glenn Research Center in Ohio and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

"SpaceX will work with Glenn and Marshall to advance the technology required to transfer propellant in orbit, an important step in the development of the company's Starship spacecraft," NASA's news release said. This is a significant announcement for technical and political reasons.

SpaceX, in turn, welcomed the opportunity to advance NASA's Artemis program, which NASA hopes will bring people to the Moon (and later Mars) by 2024. , "We believe that SpaceX's fleet of advanced rockets and spacecraft, including Falcon Heavy and Starship, is an integral part of NASA's lunar and Mars acceleration plans," a corporate spokesman told Ars.

Technical

One of SpaceX Main Engineers behind the Starship Project Paul Wooster has identified refueling in orbit as one of the toughest technological challenges the company has to face to make its Mars ambitions a reality.

In some scenarios where the company wants to send people to Mars, a super heavy rocket would be deployed Starting a Mars-bound spacecraft into a near-earth orbit At this point, the spacecraft would need to replenish its fuel tanks to its payload to the red planet Fueling (as a payload) would be required to refuel a single Mars-bound spacecraft in near-Earth orbit, and this would involve the transfer of hundreds of tons of methane and liquid oxygen.

Such refueling technology would be useful to others as well as NASA. "I have a series of floor-to-ceiling studies that list the critical technologies that humans need to become long-time space explorers, and refueling in space is always on the list," said Bobby Brown Former Chief Technologist at NASA who is now Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It's the key to sustainability."

The new partnership recognizes the maturity of SpaceX as one of the leading space transportation companies, Braun said. And Glenn and Marshall are the right partners for SpaceX, even though there is a strong rivalry between SpaceX's low-cost rockets and Marshall's leading NASA Space Launch System space rocket launch.

NASA has previously dealt in depth with the handling, transportation and storage of rocket fuels such as liquid oxygen, hydrogen and methane in space (hydrogen atoms can even travel directly through metal tanks). Under the new Space Act, the NASA space technology program will finance the time staff at the agency spend addressing these issues, as well as the agency's used test facilities. In fact, teams of companies and agencies will work together to solve the problem, each with its own portion of the effort.

"The officers of Marshall and Glenn are very talented in this field." Brown said. "The people at SpaceX know their system well, both the skills and the requirements of the Starship architecture, and the fact that they all come together in the same room and work on the same problem is enormous." ]

Political

Brown was Chief Technology Technician in 2010, when the Obama Administration set up NASA's Space Technology Program to promote precisely this type of innovation in the US space industry. It was a controversial era in space policy when the White House demanded more funding for new space companies and new space ideas such as tank farms while Congress wanted to keep NASA in the rocket business.

Eventually, Congress gained the upper hand and put NASA on track to build the large SLS rocket at a cost of more than $ 2 billion a year. The missile program benefited most of all the Alabama Space Center and was supported by Richard Shelby, Senator of the US state of Alabama. The potential for storage and transfer of space fuels threatened the SLS rocket, as it would allow NASA to conduct some reconnaissance missions with smaller and cheaper rockets. A source said at the time: " Senator Shelby called NASA and said that if he hears a word about fuel depots, he will stop the space technology program."

The line from the other NASA officials said fuel storage as a technology was not ready for the main time. Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and current National Space Council Executive Secretary Scott Pace, both SLS advocates, froze Space News technology in 2011.

"Fuel Depots as an Element of a Nearly long-term space architectures are an example of magical thinking in its best form, a wasteful distraction that is supported by ill-considered assumptions that can lead to a deceiving concept looks attractive, "wrote Griffin and Pace. Ironically, their chosen heavy-duty missile for use in NASA's "short-term" architecture, the SLS rocket, is far behind schedule and budget. It is unlikely that it will take at least another three or four years to make significant exploration missions, and it upholds the Trump Administration's Artemis plan for a $ 400 million depot. This would have included a demonstration of technology in space. They argued that both refueling and large rockets are critical to a sustainable exploration plan. However, Congress never adequately funded the effort and led to a series of smaller soil tests.

A NASA advisor, Charles Miller, was one of those who conducted studies to show that the use of propellant depots could be significantly reduced. Exploration costs for NASA. On Tuesday, he praised the Trump administration and NASA chief Jim Bridenstine for making good use of the space technology program.

"Administrator Bridenstine is clearly following President Trump's mandate to reinforce NASA's commercial public-private partnerships." Miller, now CEO of UbiquitiLink, told Ars, "The breakthrough technology used by the NASA has discovered capitalism, and this program proves that the NASA leadership has found that reusability is mixed with commercial public-private partnerships. "


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