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Solar Electric Spacecraft Propulsion Could Get NASA To an Asteroid

samzenpus posted about a year ago | from the here-comes-the-sun dept.

NASA 53

coondoggie writes "In the process of detailing its $17.7 billion 2014 budget this week, NASA highlighted a mission to snag a 500-ton asteroid, bring it back, stash it near the moon and study it. It also took the time to put in a plug for an ongoing research project called Solar Electric Propulsion, which NASA says could be the key technology it needs to pull off the asteroid plan."

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Awesome (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43445683)

Glad you linked that article that includes mention of this mystery research project for Solar Electric Propulsion and mentions not a single speck of information as to what the hell that is.

in case you're wondering its the kind of ion drive Deep Space 1 [wikipedia.org] (NSTAR) , progressing technology but not some crazy new thing.

Re:Awesome (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43445699)

Glad you linked that article that includes mention of this mystery research project for Solar Electric Propulsion and mentions not a single speck of information as to what the hell that is.

in case you're wondering its the kind of ion drive Deep Space 1 [wikipedia.org] (NSTAR) , progressing technology but not some crazy new thing.

That's what I figured it was. I'm somewhat disappointed NASA decided to hype it up with green terms. Solar! Electric!

What is SEP [Re:Awesome] (1)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | about a year ago | (#43448547)

in case you're wondering its the kind of ion drive Deep Space 1 [wikipedia.org] (NSTAR) , progressing technology but not some crazy new thing.

Actually, Deep-Space 1 was an ion engine-- specifically, an electrostatic ion thruster.

Solar Electric Propulsion for asteroid missions-- at least the ones I've been involved in analyzing-- tends to be Hall thrusters (aka "Stationary Plasma Thrusters"), which are higher thrust and use energy more efficiently (in terms of less energy per unit of impulse), but aren't as fuel efficient (in terms of more propellant per unit impulse). Some people call Hall thrusters a form of ion engine (after all, the exhaust is plasma, which is ionized), but it's a different kind of thing from classic ion engines.

http://nmp.nasa.gov/ds1/tech/sep.html [nasa.gov]
http://htx.pppl.gov/ht.html [pppl.gov]

That's what I figured it was. I'm somewhat disappointed NASA decided to hype it up with green terms. Solar! Electric!

"Electric propulsion" is a generic word for any sort of rocket engine in which the reaction mass is given energy from electricity (rather than, say, chemical energy). There are a whole array of different technologies to do this, each of which has advantages and disadvantages.

Solar electric propulsion narrows that down to specify that the power source is solar. This is in contrast to, say, Nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) in which a nuclear reactor is the power source, or conceptually beamed-power electric propulsion, in which the power comes from a laser or microwave beam. A SEP system is very different from a NEP, but actually, a SEP using an ion engine looks a lot like SEP using, say, a magnetoplasmadynamic thruster (although the details will be different).

I'm sorry if you think that the term "Solar Electric Propulsion" is green. From my point of view, it's simply descriptive.

Re:Awesome (1)

tehcyder (746570) | about a year ago | (#43451167)

I'm somewhat disappointed NASA decided to hype it up with green terms. Solar! Electric!

Yeah, NASA should be sticking to gasoline-powered vehicles. Anything else is unpatriotic.

Re:Awesome (2)

confused one (671304) | about a year ago | (#43445803)

Which may all be true... While you and I know what an ion drive is, and you may have even been following along the development news for NSTAR, NEXT, HiPEP, and even the occasional blurb about VASMIR, the average U.S. citizen has no clue what you're talking about. Calling it a solar electric propulsion system helps with public outreach. You want public funding, you have to get public buy-in.

bull (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43445945)

You also have to figure out where to get more xenon than mankind has, so far, captured. It fails at the basic "can I actually get that" logistics level.

Re:bull (1)

cusco (717999) | about a year ago | (#43446073)

Xenon is not the only molecule that can be used in an ion drive, just the most efficient. Well, the most efficient at the time that Deep Space I was launched, there may be better now. Post fails at the basic "I understand what I'm babbling about" level.

Re:bull (1)

confused one (671304) | about a year ago | (#43446569)

Xenon is most efficient because of its mass. you could also use argon, which is plentiful, or even hydrogen, which is the most abundant thing in the universe but a bit harder to ionize.

Re:Awesome (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43445821)

There are GREENER technologies, you insensitive clod.
NO ONE even mentioned using a giant rubber band to launch a net around the asteroid , making it HANDY to tow.
How many Chinese must die for your Imperialist solar panels?
In the Glorious Peoples Republic of China we pioneered launching space tourists via rubber band many years before westerners had this. That is why our space program is superior to yours.You westerners pollute the world with your capitalist space programs.

Re:Awesome (1)

Brett Buck (811747) | about a year ago | (#43448001)

TFA also treats this as some new development. It might be new to NASA, but it is also used on Advanced EHF (which I happen to work on) where we used it to raise the orbit after an apogee kick engine failure, Also, the Russians have been using it for something like 20 years.

  Brett

Remember it's a REUSABLE SPACE TUG (5, Interesting)

wisebabo (638845) | about a year ago | (#43445729)

Ok, so once the asteroid collector has delivered the asteroid to high lunar orbit, what does the spacecraft do then?

Well, if its got even a tiny fraction of its propellant left over (remember it just towed something maybe 100x its size clear across the inner solar system) , it slowly spirals down to low earth orbit and... REFUELS.
Now here's where things get interesting. Once it's refueled (remember that while its main consumable is up to 12,000 lbs. of Xenon, it gets its energy from solar power), it can do any number of things. Of course it could be sent out again to get another asteroid, including, as I mentioned in a previous post, one with precious WATER (Fuel and Oxygen!), but that might be boring. How about having it PAY FOR ITSELF by moving satellites from LEO to geosynchronous orbit. (This is very expensive as it typically requires an additional booster, I think the cost per pound is at least double that to low orbit). I think this market is on the order of $5B per year.

The reason why this would work is because the asteroid tug would clearly be capable of moving very(!) large payloads. It wouldn't even have to be very slow, if it can accelerate a 500 ton asteroid at 1/10,000th of a g, it could accelerate a 5 ton satellite at say 1/200th of a gee (taking into account the tug's own weight). So it could deliver the satellites in weeks if not days. Of course there would need to be a few minor design modifications to the tug. The collapsible "bag" would have to be removable and some sort of industry standard docking ports added. There would need to be some provision for refueling ports and critical components (gyroscopes, reaction wheels, electronics) would need to be replaceable/upgradeable like the Hubble space telescope. Of course servicing this "space tug" in this way is probably beyond the near term capabilities of robotics. However, rather than this being a problem, it could be an opportunity... ... for the International Space Station to actually be USEFUL. Here it could serve as a fuel depot, servicing "garage" and interchange point for these "space tugs". The kind of problem that robotics can't handle yet are ideally suited for an astronaut with a wrench (and maybe some elbow grease). The fact that the main propellant for these tugs is Xenon, an inert noble element, makes handling the fuel much less problematic (no problems with corrosion or toxicity) and safer (no fear of explosive combustion). Even the fact that these tugs use ion thrusters would be an advantage meaning that everything would be happening very slowly, if one went out of control they could probably move the entire station out of the way (like they do when avoiding space junk). The station could also keep spare, interchangeable parts for these tugs such as additional "bags" or robot arms or other modules. In short, the ISS would have a PURPOSE. (Although a pressurized "dry dock" would be preferable, substantial maintenance could be performed in a vacuum as the Hubble telescope servicing missions, Skylab repairs and recently tested refueling robot at the ISS).

With even a little thought, these space tugs have lots of additional uses. The same high power ion engines that can move a 500 ton asteroid could also send 500 tons of cargo cheaply (if slowly) to Mars. The same collapsible bag that can capture a tumbling asteroid can easily capture a much lighter piece of space junk. All it takes is for a government with foresight to make the initial investment that may (as I've suggested) quickly repay itself perhaps many times over. And isn't that the purpose of government (if not NASA)?

(By the way, putting the mini-asteroid in high lunar orbit may be useful as a last resort because, if we detect a threatening object heading our way, it might be in a good position that we could put the mini-asteroid on a new trajectory to hit the object and thus deflect it out of the way. With luck the 500 ton mass will strike the incoming object at a high incidental angle and at a significant velocity since it'll be coming from a completely different orbit. Of course it would be much preferred to nudge the incoming object years before in deep space off of an intercept trajectory but if we're caught with our pants down it would be nice to have a big rock whirling in the sling of its lunar orbit. In that case, we coud call it "David's Rock" or "The Goliath Killer".)

Re:Remember it's a REUSABLE SPACE TUG (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43446169)

You sir, should be the head of NASA. That is a brilliant idea to create one or a small fleet of useable craft that stays in space and does work. Having them dock at the space station (our only foothold in space, even if it is only LEO) is also a brilliant idea.

After these are done I would suggest that the next project is a human driveable craft made up of multiple, interconnected modules that could also be docked at the ISS and used by astronauts/scientists to travel beyond LEO and do science stuff.

Re:Remember it's a REUSABLE SPACE TUG (2)

WindBourne (631190) | about a year ago | (#43447789)

This IS the idea of NASA. They have awarded 3 companies money to study various SEPs tugs. In addition, another 3 have money to study chemical tugs.

And that was 3 years ago.

Re:Remember it's a REUSABLE SPACE TUG (1)

kermidge (2221646) | about a year ago | (#43446361)

I'd add one other use: since the craft working as tugboat could take sats from LEO out to geostationary or geosynchronous orbit it could bring back satellites that are operational but for needing fuel or minor repairs and then put them back.

Right now, companies have to eat the cost of those satellites that have run out of fuel needed to refine orbit and point their antennas. Some of those fuels are toxic and require careful handling; IIRC hyrazine is one of them. I suppose repairs would be on a case basis.

As you say, this refueling and repair role could be a perfect fit for the ISS. Absent any 'show-stoppers' this could add years of demonstrably pragmatic and income-producing use of the station, and the added time would allow both new and continuing research.

Re:Remember it's a REUSABLE SPACE TUG (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | about a year ago | (#43446557)

How about having it PAY FOR ITSELF by moving satellites from LEO to geosynchronous orbit. (This is very expensive as it typically requires an additional booster, I think the cost per pound is at least double that to low orbit). I think this market is on the order of $5B per year.

The cost of the additional booster is offset by the income from getting the satellite into GSO weeks and months ahead of the time it would get there by using your hypothetical space tug. Not to mention the availability of the booster is 100% guaranteed - it arrives in LEO with the satellite. So your market is almost certainly nonexistent.
 

However, rather than this being a problem, it could be an opportunity... ... for the International Space Station to actually be USEFUL.

Sure, if you ignore the fact that the ISS is in a completely wrong orbit for anything involving GSO. Moving your tug there for maintenance and refueling, or worse yet routing the satellites via there, are like shipping from Manhattan to Brooklyn via Shanghai, Boston, and Johannesburg.

Re:Remember it's a REUSABLE SPACE TUG (1)

WindBourne (631190) | about a year ago | (#43446943)

That is the idea. Kill the SLS and put the money to good use by building tug/depots. The docking will be lids. With lids being used, u can change out tugs or pieces.

Re:Remember it's a REUSABLE SPACE TUG (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43448177)

Didn't you already post this in a past similar thread? Methinks someone is karma-whoring...

Put all typo puns under this thread (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43445735)

It also took the time to put in a plug for an ongoing research project it has gong called Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP)

It's loud. Even in space.

What KIND of electric propulsion? (2)

EdZ (755139) | about a year ago | (#43445799)

SEP encompasses a lot of things. Do they mean an Ion thruster (of the various gridded or gridless variants), a Hall-effect thruster, a FEEP thruster, an MPD thruster, a Helicon thruster, a VASIMR engine, an arc-jet or resistojet, etc? There are a lot of electric engines you could hook up to some solar panels (or an RTG, or compact radiatively cooled reactor).

Re:What KIND of electric propulsion? (1)

MLBs (2637825) | about a year ago | (#43445827)

Get with the time. It's no longer a thruster, but a drive capable of quarter impulse.

Re:What KIND of electric propulsion? (1)

confused one (671304) | about a year ago | (#43445971)

Now... you know full well they're talking about a solar electric powered improbability drive. All you need is a little sunlight and a nice cup of tea.

Great (4, Funny)

JustOK (667959) | about a year ago | (#43445965)

Too bad they can only make a drive that works during sunny days in space.

Could get NASA to an asteroid (0)

rossdee (243626) | about a year ago | (#43446083)

As long as it (the spacecraft) was already in orbit.

And it would have to be unmanned, since its gonna take a lot of time to get anywhere.

Np I havent RTFA

Solar Electric Propulsion is the real plan (3, Interesting)

phantomfive (622387) | about a year ago | (#43446303)

NASA is being smart here. They know going to an astroid is a long-term project. They know that when Obama is out of office, whoever replaces him might cancel the project (it happens a lot).

So they are going to start by researching a new technology that will be useful whether the project gets cancelled or not. It's a clever way to deal with uncertain and shifting funding and requirements.

Re:Solar Electric Propulsion is the real plan (1)

WindBourne (631190) | about a year ago | (#43446975)

Clinton solved this with a treaty. NASA wanted private space in the 90s but neo-cons killed it. During WS term griffin got it done via cots. Now O is pushing hard to get private space going further while the G D neo-cons continue to try to kill it. Hopefully when FH flies, musk will push BFR which will be the end of SLS.

Re: Solar Electric Propulsion is the real plan (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43450091)

When Y P on a WS, FF to use W W so P can U Y.

Re:Solar Electric Propulsion is the real plan (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43451463)

WTF? A little too many acronyms in that post.

NASA Lost and Confussed? (1)

LifesABeach (234436) | about a year ago | (#43446625)

Why is it that NASA will not go and put a permanent base on the Moon? Everything else from that would be doable, expected. Is it that NASA is a afraid of using the Moon as a test bed?

Apologies to Kermit the Frog.

Re:NASA Lost and Confussed? (1)

WindBourne (631190) | about a year ago | (#43446987)

is counting on private space putting up a base on the moon. It is a certenty unless the house wins at blocking it. In the meantime, NASA is focused on BEO.

Re:NASA Lost and Confussed? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43448113)

How does putting a base on the moon help with anything else? It's harder to launch missions from the moon than from the space station. It would produce no supplies, so we'd have to ship everything into the moon's gravity well and then launch it again. It would take about fifteen years to achieve and would put us no closer to anything else than we are now.

Already Has (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43446663)

Solar Electric (ion) propulsion already HAS gotten NASA to a comet: the DAWN spacecraft which spent a year at Vesta and is now off to Ceres.

Very Nice, But... (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about a year ago | (#43446667)

While it is great that NASA is focusing on efforts to do something that may be very worthwhile in the long run, they (and the government) are ignoring the critical strategic importance of the moon.

With Russia pledging to spend 7 times NASA's annual budget on space exploration this year, and with both Russia and China determined to establish permanent moonbases, the U.S. government is seriously dropping the ball.

I really have to say, honestly, sometimes I think this administration is trying to pull the U.S. down on purpose.

Re:Very Nice, But... (1)

WindBourne (631190) | about a year ago | (#43446999)

Idiots like u are killing us. NASA is having private space go to the moon while NASA does things that need to be done but private space can not afford.

Re:Very Nice, But... (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about a year ago | (#43447323)

"Idiots like u are killing us. NASA is having private space go to the moon while NASA does things that need to be done but private space can not afford."

"Idiot", am I?

Please show me where there are official Government plans for private space industry to go to the moon. I follow the space program closely, yet I've never heard of that one. Yes, recently a private firm announced a plan to go to the moon (one announced plans to go to Mars, too) but those are in spite of NASA. They are not even remotely part of NASA's official plans.

Second, we can't afford it? REALLY? We can afford useless military action in Afghanistan and Syria, which cost MANY TIMES more, but we can't afford this? Bullshit.

And yet the Russians and the Chinese CAN afford it? REALLY? Their economies are doing THAT MUCH better than ours? Hint: Russia's definitely is not, and China has been in a bit of a slump lately. Or hadn't you heard about that?

And I'm the idiot, huh? I think that's a very interesting point of view.

Re:Very Nice, But... (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about a year ago | (#43447333)

I would be remiss if I did not add: a while back the Obama administration announced that it had NO official plans to go back to the moon. Did you forget that already?

Once again: while private industry may do it, that is a very far cry from official Government policy.

Re:Very Nice, But... (1)

WindBourne (631190) | about a year ago | (#43448423)

NASA is not the one who will DRIVE the lunar landing. They are instead, pushing the technical arena again. Just like they did with Saturn V.
One last thing: Consider reading beyond FoxNews. Heck, try www.nasaspaceflight.com.

Re:Very Nice, But... (1)

WindBourne (631190) | about a year ago | (#43448413)

Quit tuning into Fox news. It rots your brain.

Read between the lines. [examiner.com]
Official? Not yet. [lasvegascitylife.com]

BUT, NASA is pushing for multiple human launch vehicles IN SPITE of you neo-cons. In addition, they are pushing Bigelow Aerospace. They want and NEED BA to put up multiple space stations around earth and go the moon, so as to lower the price of launch. As launch prices go down, then NASA is able to accomplish more. So, what does NASA need to have a base on the moon? They do NOT need a single expensive heavy lifter. THat will make it impossible to go to the moon.
OTOH, if NASA can get MULTIPLE human launchers and MULTIPLE cargo launchers, and MULTIPLE pluggable tugs of different types, then we can run humans and cargo to the moon, and elsewhere. 3 years ago, they passed out multiple contracts to study various tugs/fuel depots. 3 were for chemical tugs and another 3 were for SEPs.

Now, NASA's real problem, is that you neo-cons continue to hit their budget and try to stop them from going ANYWHERE BEO. So, now, NASA wants this equipment produced in private space, so that prices come down, AND NASA no longer has to deal with the HOUSE republicans denying them funding to accomplish things.

Obama is not the problem. You neo-cons are.

Re:Very Nice, But... (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about a year ago | (#43450087)

"Quit tuning into Fox news. It rots your brain. Read between the lines."

Do you have these WHOOSH moments all the time? Or just over this subject?

I don't HAVE to read between the lines. What, you're going to base your argument on a rumor about a possible alliance between NASA and a corporation? Big fucking deal.

Repeat: I was talking about CURRENT OFFICIAL POLICY. I don't give the slightest damn whether you think it will change in the future. I'm talking about RIGHT NOW.

And I repeat again: the OFFICIAL administration policy right now. I remind you that the administration (Congress and the President) are who determine NASA's budget. And as of right now, they have publicly declared that we DO NOT have any plans to go to the moon.

I am fully aware that NASA wants to. And I am behind them in that effort. But I was clearly referring to OUR GOVERNMENT and their short-sided policies, not what NASA "wants" to do.

Re:Very Nice, But... (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about a year ago | (#43450113)

"Quit tuning into Fox news. It rots your brain. Read between the lines."

Do you have these WHOOSH moments all the time? Or just over this subject?

I don't HAVE to read between the lines. What, you're going to base your argument on a rumor about a possible alliance between NASA and a corporation? Big deal.

Repeat: I was talking about CURRENT OFFICIAL POLICY. I don't give the slightest damn whether you think it will change in the future. I wish it would. But I was referring to official policy, RIGHT NOW.

And I repeat again: the OFFICIAL administration policy right now. I remind you that the administration (Congress and the President) are who determine NASA's budget. And as of right now, they have publicly declared that we DO NOT have any plans to go to the moon.

I am fully aware that NASA wants to. And I am behind them in that effort. But I was clearly referring to OUR GOVERNMENT and their short-sided policies, not what NASA "wants" to do.

And you can take your smart-assed comments about "neocons" (which is hilariously different from my actual political views) and "fox news", and shove them right back up your ass where they came from.

Re:Very Nice, But... (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about a year ago | (#43450123)

Wow. Talk about Slashdot errors. It told me the first version of this post didn't post. Hence the second one. I think in all these years this is the first time it's done that to me.

Re:Very Nice, But... (2)

agm (467017) | about a year ago | (#43447391)

The US government shouldn't be using wealth it confiscates from its citizens for things like this.

If you want space exploration to be funded, then get your checkbook out. Convince others to do the same. But don't expect people who do not want to (or cannot afford to) to fund your hobby horse.

Re:Very Nice, But... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43448843)

And your hobby horse is clear enough too.

What you call "wealth confiscation" is known to the rest of the world as "taxes". We can argue about the merits of particular taxes or the appropriate level of taxation. However most people understand that taxes are the price of civilization in the modern world. You would presumably have us return to world of Babylon and Sumer. Well that ship has sailed and no one is listening to your propaganda.

Re:Very Nice, But... (1)

agm (467017) | about a year ago | (#43457853)

And your hobby horse is clear enough too.

What you call "wealth confiscation" is known to the rest of the world as "taxes". We can argue about the merits of particular taxes or the appropriate level of taxation. However most people understand that taxes are the price of civilization in the modern world.

There is nothing civilised about compelling people to hand over the fruits of their labour using a threat of force.

You would presumably have us return to world of Babylon and Sumer. Well that ship has sailed and no one is listening to your propaganda.

I would have us live in a society that has systems in place to protect each other from harm. You may not define theft as harm - I do.

Re:Very Nice, But... (1)

VortexCortex (1117377) | about a year ago | (#43449871)

While it is great that NASA is focusing on efforts to do something that may be very worthwhile in the long run, they (and the government) are ignoring the critical strategic importance of the moon.

AMAZING! Why didn't we think of this first?! I propose we create a space craft so large we can capture the moon with it! Something that big will need living quarters... I think we should call it the Enormous ARTificial Habitat! or EARTH for short.

Nope (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43446847)

The real cost of getting a 'working model' of a solar-electric propulsion will cost $18 billion, of the $17.7 billion 2014 NASA request that NASA is not going to get. Maybe NASA will get $10 billion.

But, how long will the 'Sequestration Theater' last ?

4 years ? 10 years ?

We have lived under Security Theater for 12 years now and there is no hope in sight.

Re:Nope (1)

WindBourne (631190) | about a year ago | (#43448447)

You have to be kidding? We have loads of work done on SEP. Heck, we have been using ion drives for a couple of decades. NOW, you think that creating a tug with it will take 18B?

Anyone else think..... (1)

BluPhenix316 (2656403) | about a year ago | (#43447381)

That this could really be a bad move? I mean what if some mistake or miscalculation happens and then we have a 500 ton asteroid headed straight for Earth? Wouldn't it be better to examine the Asteroid in the field instead of bringing it back to Earth?

Re:Anyone else think..... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43447945)

it is way too small (much smaller that the one that exploded over Russia) to do any harm to Earth, it will burn in atmosphere.

The worst case scenario it will hit ISS or some satellite, but it is VERY unlikely because all working satellites and ISS can change their orbit to avoid collision if needed, and the possible collision will be known months in advance.

Perturbation Theory. (1)

Pino Grigio (2232472) | about a year ago | (#43450795)

Am I the only person who worries that these missions will change the system in some non-computable way such that in a million years time a giant asteroid the size of Manhattan slams into Earth at twenty times the speed of a rifle bullet, killing all life except some extremely primitive microbes, which otherwise would have missed the Earth and headed into the Sun?

Did that make sense?

Re:Perturbation Theory. (1)

Gavagai80 (1275204) | about a year ago | (#43450951)

It's exactly equally likely to accidentally save us from the giant asteroid. But essentially zero likelihood of either, obviously.

Re:Perturbation Theory. (1)

Pino Grigio (2232472) | about a year ago | (#43452281)

You need to take Fingale's Law into account.
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