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NASA sets timetables for engine and demonstrators

Posted: February 22, 2010

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NASA hopes to begin flying flagship-class space technology demonstration missions by 2014 and develop a powerful new hydrocarbon first stage engine for a heavy-lift rocket by 2020, according to budget documents released Monday.

Managed by NASA's exploration systems mission directorate, the research and development progam will include technology demonstrators, work on heavy-lift booster components, robotic precursor missions throughout the solar system, and studies of human health and endurance for potential deep space missions.

Major new technology demonstration missions, with costs between $400 million and $1 billion, should start launching by 2014, according to budget documents posted Monday on the NASA Web site.

NASA will lead the development of a powerful new rocket engine powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants. The engine could be utilized on future heavy-lift rockets or on the first stage of a new launch vehicle, according to NASA.

The RD-180 engine was tested at the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1998. Credit: NASA
"A strong candidate would be a hydrocarbon (liquid oxygen/kerosene) engine, capable of generating high levels of thrust approximately equal to or exceeding the performance of the Russian-built RD-180 engine," the NASA budget estimate said. "Other key target characteristics for this new capability include improvements in overall engine robustness and efficiency, health monitoring, affordability, and operability."

The RD-180 engine, which propels the first stage of the Atlas 5 rocket, packs more than 860,000 pounds of sea level thrust at full power.

NASA says the new hydrocarbon engine should be fully operational by the end of this decade, or even sooner if the agency receives help from the Department of Defense.

The 2011 budget request provides $3.1 billion over the next five years for propulsion development. NASA would also build and test new in-space engines burning methane and liquid hydrogen fuels.

With mission lifetimes lasting up to five years, the flagship demonstrations would test key technologies for future deep space expeditions. The first missions would be initiated by the end of 2011.

"Projects selected as in-space, flagship demonstrations will be significant in scale, and offer high potential to demonstrate new capability and reduce the cost of future exploration missions," NASA wrote in the budget estimate.

Candidates for technology demos include in-orbit propellant transfer and storage, especially for cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Inflatable modules could be launched to the International Space Station to test lightweight alternatives for space habitation and transportation.

Automated rendezvous and docking is also a likely mission for the flagship demonstration program. NASA may also test closed-loop life support systems aboard the space station.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency successfully tested autonomous rendezvous, docking, servicing and hypergolic propellant transfer on the Orbital Express mission in 2007. NASA says it will build upon lessons learned on Orbital Express.

Artist's concept of two satellites in close proximity during the Orbital Express mission. Credit: DARPA
NASA will pursue international, commercial and U.S. government partners for the largest demos.

In addition to the flagship missions, the new exploration technology development program will also focus on enabling capabilities such as resource utilization, autonomous precision landing and advanced in-space propulsion. Beginning development in 2011, the enabling technologies would later be demonstrated on flagship or robotic precursor missions.

The exploration technology development program would receive $7.8 billion through 2015 under the budget request.

NASA is also committing to starting funding on two robotic precursor mission in 2011, likely including a lunar mission to be operated in real-time from Earth. Another precursor mission could target a landing on an asteroid or one of the moons of Mars.

The exploration division would be revamped under the Obama administration's fiscal year 2011 budget request. The Constellation moon program is being phased out under the new space policy. The Feb. 1 announcement of the new NASA direction was short on details, instead addressing new technology initiatives with vague descriptions and fuzzy dates.

The supplementary budget documents released Monday fill in some of the gaps, providing key objectives of the new programs even though the finest details are still being negotiated.