NASA this month has taken two more steps in fleshing out its vision for space exploration through the mid-2030s, outlining its midterm plan for asteroid study and selecting commercial partners to devise key technologies to enable astronauts to survive for extended periods in deep space – ultimately as far as Mars.
Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) are, initially, 12-month contracts for work on advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellite technologies. The dozen companies chosen include big names such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK, but also small players such as Morehead State University in Kentucky.
Three technology categories are in play. The power of electric propulsion systems – efficient and capable for operations over long periods with minimal propellant brought from Earth – must be increased from less than 5kW today to around 40kW.
Habitation systems will be needed to enable the new Lockheed Martin-built Orion crew capsule to sustain a crew of four for up to 60 days in orbit around the Moon – and will need to be scaled up to cope with the nine months or so needed to reach Mars.
Also, small satellites called CubeSats are to be developed as secondary payloads for scientific and technology development purposes.
Last week’s NextSTEP selection followed the disclosure of more details about the concept for a mid-2020s asteroid redirect mission. That plan will be to send a robotic spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid – to be selected no earlier than 2019 – and grab a boulder from its surface, to be pulled into a stable orbit around the Moon.
Solar-electric propulsion will be a critical enabling technology for this task, which is intended to give astronauts – flying in Orion capsules launched by the massive, in-development Space Launch System rocket – access to asteroid material that can be studied in the relative safety of the space between the Earth and the Moon.
Orion made its maiden, uncrewed flight in December 2014, and SLS – the biggest rocket ever built – is due to fly in 2018. A crewed Orion-SLS flight could come as soon as 2021.
NASA is billing all of these projects as “Next Steps on the Journey to Mars”, an ambitious scheme to send crews to Mars from about 2035. Critically, any Mars mission is deemed beyond the financial and industrial capability of NASA alone, and would therefore be reliant on international partners – who will also be needed to ensure the legitimacy of a step as momentous as a visit to another planet. With this in mind, the NextSTEP projects are also expected to “help determine the role for international partner involvement, by fully exploring domestic capabilities”.