United Launch Alliance Proposes On-Orbit Fuel Depots


ULA Proposes On-Orbit Gas Stations for Space Exploration
Aviation Week

United Launch Alliance (ULA) is proposing on-orbit propellant depots to increase the capability of NASA’s Constellation exploration architecture. The plan to use depots derived from an advanced upper stage for the Atlas V and Delta IV evolved expandable launch vehicles (EELV) has caught the attention of the Augustine panel, which has included in-space refueling in four of seven options identified.

“Propellant depots divorce the launch from what we do in space,” says Bernard Kutter, ULA manager of advanced programs. “We can launch on smaller rockets and refuel in space.” The joint Boeing/Lockheed Martin company has proposed several different architectures. The simplest is a dual launch, with the propellant depot being launched first to wait for the payload stage and then transfer fuel in orbit.

This would increase payload to the lunar surface to more than 10 metric tons, and mass in transit to Mars by a factor of four, says Kutter, speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Joint Propulsion Conference in Denver on Aug. 3.

“On-orbit top-off of the Earth departure stage and Altair lunar lander would significantly improve performance. Every 20 tons of fuel on-loaded would increase landed mass by 5 tons” or lower the cost of NASA’s planned Ares V heavy-lift launcher.

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