Issue No. 33

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 33 | Oct 8, 2019

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NASA is developing nuclear rocket engines. NASA received $100 million in 2018 and $125 million in 2019 for its growing nuclear rocket program. Nuclear thermal rockets heat hydrogen to very high temperatures with a nuclear reactor and expel it out a rocket nozzle, gaining specific impulses (Isp) of 850-1000 sec, about twice that of traditional rocket engines. In August, the White House requested that NASA develop safety protocols for reactors in space. NASA’s Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator (NTREES) at the Marshall Space Flight Center is at the core of their efforts. NTREES uses electrical power to heat a chamber to reactor-level temperatures allowing material testing and development without the need for a real reactor [pdf about upgrades to 1.2 MW in 2013]. Contractor BWXT Nuclear Energy is working on reactor designs for NTP. Nuclear propulsion is promising, but reactors in space have a somewhat sordid past; Kosmos 954, a 70s-era Russian reconnaissance satellite reentered the atmosphere and broke up over Canada with its reactor still attached. Unlike Kosmos 954, current NTP isn’t intended for use in LEO. Related: as we reported all the way back in Issue #6, DARPA is also exploring nuclear thermal rockets with their Reactor On A Rocket (ROAR) program.

NASA is also developing new spacesuits. This week the agency put out a Request for Information for next-generation extravehicular activity (EVA) and extravehicular mobility unit (EMU) hardware manufacturing. An upgrade has been needed for about 30 years—current suits were designed prior to 1983 with a stated 15-year design life. Just 11 of the original 18 suits are still available for use, with only 4 onboard the ISS. This led to a suit shortage which caused a delay in the first all-female spacewalk earlier this year… it’s finally going to happen later this month. But new suits are required for the 2024 moon timeline forcing development to accelerate faster than previous efforts. Spacesuit design has sometimes been the realm of futuristic artistic renderings, but projects like Dava Newman’s BioSuit [pdf], while futuristic looking, are more firmly based on real-world technology—BioSuit applies pressure directly to the skin instead of having the astronaut in a bubble of appropriately pressurized gas. Several new flight suits have recently been developed or are being developed in the US by SpaceX and Boeing for the commercial crew program and by NASA as part of the Orion Crew Survival System. and even a DIY pressure suit by an amateur hobbyist. Related: pictures of early space suits paired with their missions.

NASA awarded $43 million in "Tipping Point" contracts. These funds are targeted at technologies that need to mature to enable the exploration of the Moon and Mars and were awarded to Blue Origin (technology to liquefy and store hydrogen and oxygen, eventually for ISRU on the Moon), SpaceX ("coupler prototypes" for in-space refueling, probably for Starship), Accion Systems (ion electrospray thrusters with ISP of 2000 seconds, similar to the cold-gas thrusters used on the MarCO cubesats), CU Aerospace and ExoTerra Resource (propulsion on cubesats), Astrobotic (small rover development), and Intuitive Machines (open-source spacecraft computer vision processing unit). Related: NASA's NextSTEP program has called for proposals (due November 1st) for human-rated lunar landers for descent and return to the Lunar Gateway.

News in brief. Relativity Space raised $140 million to fund their plans to 3D print entire rockets; Blue Origin’s first crewed flight of New Shepard probably won’t happen this year; a software fix for DSCOVR’s EPIC camera is planned; UPS’s Flight Forward subsidiary is the US’s first certified drone airline; MEV 1, a strap-on spacecraft which will extend Intelsat 901’s life (and perhaps others) by up to 15 years by taking over propulsion and attitude control, will launch on a Proton rocket from Baikonur this week; Juno, an entirely solar-powered spacecraft, performed a whopping 10.5 hour burn to dodge Jupiter’s shadow; China grew cotton seeds on the Moon—the first lunar biological growth experiment—but they would have sent a tortoise if there’d been room (oddly, it wouldn’t have been the first in space); the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon for the In-Flight Abort test have arrived at Cape Canaveral for integration and final testing before launch; and, Hayabusa2, the clown car of spacecraft, has dropped yet another rover on Ryugu.

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