SPACE: NASA AND THE ION THRUSTER

October 26, 2017 By Joseph P. Farrell

This blog began when Ms. M.W. sent the following article to me, about NASA's recent test of the ion-Hall thruster, which has now demonstrated a thrust in excess of five newtons, far surpassing that of NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which indeed does use an ion thruster, but one only generating 90 micronewtons of thrust:

NASA Breaks Record With Ion Thruster That Could Take Humans To Mars

The author of this article, Jonathan O'Callaghan, provides a link to NASA's "other ongoing projects," and while I originally intended to comment in this blog more on the article itself, after clicking on the link contained in it, my initial reaction was "whoa! something is up!", and that, of course, brings us to today's high octane speculation.

For when I clicked on Mr. O'Callaghan's provided link, it led me here:

Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Projects

At the top of this link, the reader will note the following contract awards:

NASA’s journey to deep space will include key partnerships with commercial industry for the development of advanced exploration systems. In an effort to stimulate deep space capability development across the aerospace industry, NASA released the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Broad Agency Announcement and selected 12 projects to advance the development of necessary exploration capabilities. Through these public-private partnerships, NextSTEP partners will provide advance concept studies and technology development projects in the areas of advanced propulsion, habitation systems and small satellites.

Advanced Propulsion

Advanced propulsion technology will be necessary to power exploration into deeper space. Selected partners will further the development of high power electric propulsion (EP) systems in order to lay the ground work for future lifetime testing and eventual technology demonstration missions of the EP systems. Current electric propulsion technology can generate 5 kilowatts of power, and NASA hopes to eventually achieve 300 kilowatts or greater. Partners will demonstrate an electric propulsion systems with higher specific impulse, higher efficiency, and higher power for long duration deep space transportation systems and look at capabilities that are beyond those previously considered.

Ad Astra Rocket Company of Webster, Texas will use the NextSTEP award to develop and test an advanced version of its Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine, an advanced plasma space propulsion system. Plasma is an electrically charged gas that can be heated to extreme temperatures by radio waves and controlled and guided by strong magnetic fields. The magnetic field also insulates nearby structures so exhaust temperatures well beyond the melting point of materials can be achieved. In rocket propulsion, the higher the temperature of the exhaust gases, the higher their velocity and the higher the fuel efficiency. The engine will be equipped with technological advances for a longer test to demonstrate the engine’s new proprietary core design and thermal control subsystem and to better estimate component lifetime

Aeroject Rocketdyne Inc. of Redmond, Washington will use the award to complete the development on a Power Processing Unit that will convert the electrical power generated by a spacecraft’s solar arrays into the power needed for its patented 250kW multi-channel Nested Hall Thruster.

MSNW LLC of Redmond, Washington plans to develop a thruster for high-power, exploration class missions. MSNW LLC will also partner with the University of Washington to develop and test a propulsion system capable of operation from 100 to 300 kW power on both traditional propellants and propellants manufactured using resources available during a deep space mission to the moon or Mars, minimizing the materials carried from Earth.
(Italicized emphasis added)

If one scrolls further down the page, one finds various contracts for habitat studies, environmental studies, CO2 scrubbing, and a brief mention of NASA's "Orion" chemical rocket booster. In other words, NASA is getting serious about further manned Lunar and Mars missions.

What intrigued me, however, is the curious lack of mention of rockets in connection with long term deep space exploration, and that is significant, for it means that the old 1950's "cartoon" version of deep space exploration by rockets is finally being abandoned. It's a tacit admission that they are simply inadequate to the job. And from the contracts being awarded for ion thrusters, it appears that NASA may have tacitly settled on the ion thruster as the best prospect for further development and study in this regard. Indeed, it looks as if the recent test of the Hall ion thruster has impressed them enough that they want to start testing various arrays of such thrusters at even greater power.

Now, that previous paragraph may have appeared to be today's high octane speculation, but it isn't, it's merely prologue to it, for it makes me wonder what is being hidden, and if, perhaps, this is a kind of limited hangout position. Why do I think that? For reasons beyond the usual "breakaway civilization-secret space program" reasoning that with "enough money and time" and the "they've been researching this since the end of World War Two" sort of explanation. Don't get me wrong: I still view that argument as being valid and having some teeth. But my suspicions here arise from more specific reasons that were advanced by Dr. Paul LaViolette in his study Secrets of Antigravity Propulsion. If you've not read that book and are interested in such matters, put it at the top of your list, for in it, he details various patents - from the 195os - in conjunction with anecdotal information, including his own suggestions to NASA in the 1990s when it solicited "ideas" for a number of advanced propulsion projects, for propulsion systems of an "electrical" nature. Between then and now is a gap of some years, and now we have this very explicit admission of actual contracts being awarded for study of various "arrays" and equipment-life studies. In short, I think we're looking at a limited hangout position, and that indeed is high octane speculation. Notably absent from these recent releases are any news of Dr. Harold "Sonny" White's ongoing studies of warp drive, or any mention of DARPA's century-project of warp capability. (And of course, there's that little Gary McKinnon-hacking/Ronald Reagan-memoirs problem...)

But limited hangout or not, these contractual awards are telling enough in themselves:

The age of the rocket for deep space missions is over.

See you on the flip side...