WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) is dedicated to pushing the technological envelope, taking on challenges not only to further space agency missions near Earth, but also to sustain future deep space exploration activities.
“In 2016, we completed several major program milestones,” explains Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator for STMD.
During the year, STMD focused upon and made significant progress in advancing technologies and capabilities in the following areas:
- Space Power and Propulsion;
- High-Bandwidth Communications, Deep Space Navigation, Avionics;
- Advanced Life Support and Resource Utilization;
- Entry, Descent and Landing Systems;
- Autonomy and Space Robotic Systems;
- Lightweight Structures and Manufacturing;
- Space Observatory Systems
Jurczyk points to areas of notable progress in fiscal year 2016, particularly work on high-power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) – an enabler for cost-effective deep space exploration.
SEP makes use of large solar cell arrays that convert collected sunlight energy to electrical power. That energy is fed into extremely fuel-efficient thrusters that provide gentle but nonstop thrust throughout the mission. SEP thrusters are designed to use far less propellant than comparable, conventional chemical propulsion systems.
“We completed the development and testing of a prototype SEP engine at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. Also, we have contracted with Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop the SEP flight system for the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission,” Jurczyk notes.
Furthermore, SEP solar array technology is being transitioned into commercial application, Jurczyk adds, by both Space Systems Loral and Orbital ATK.
Another 2016 spotlight on progress, Jurczyk observes, is the integration and testing of the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM). Now ready for launch in 2017, GPIM will test the distinctive quality of a high-performance, non-toxic, “green” fuel in orbit.
STMD worked with Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Washington and GPIM prime contractor Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado, to develop the spacecraft capable of using the unique propellant. It will fly on the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program (STP-2) mission.
Given the term “green” propellant, Jurczyk points out that the Air Force-developed fuel is a hydroxyl ammonium nitrate-based fuel/oxidizer mix, also known as AF-M315E. GPIM will flight demonstrate this fuel designed to replace use of highly toxic hydrazine and complex bi-propellant systems now in common use today.
“GPIM’s green propellant is less toxic than hydrazine. It will reduce spacecraft processing costs and it has 40 percent higher performance by volume than hydrazine,” Jurczyk says.
Aerojet Rocketdyne, builder of GPIM’s set of thrusters, is now marketing the novel thrusters as a product. The aerospace firm is also working with NASA’s Glenn Research Center to further enhance the thrusters, looking to reduce cost and add to their reliability, Jurczyk adds. “So we’re collaborating with the aerospace company to further advance this technology and I’m pleased with the progress.”
Push the technology
Jurczyk reports that STMD-supported work on the Deep Space Atomic Clock, DSAC for short, is ongoing.
DSAC is a small, low-mass atomic clock based on mercury-ion trap technology that will be demonstrated in space, providing unprecedented stability needed for next-generation deep space navigation and radio science. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory oversees project development of DSAC, which offers the promise of 50 times more accuracy than today’s best navigation clocks.
The task of designing DSAC has not been trouble-free, but it represents a tenant of STMD “to push the technology,” Jurczyk responds. Taking on the challenges of space-rating terrestrial based atomic clock technology is not easy. However, the path forward has been outlined with launch of DSAC now eyed for next year.
The DSAC demonstration unit and payload is to be hosted on a spacecraft provided by Surrey Satellite Technologies U.S. of Englewood, Colorado, lofted spaceward as part of the U.S. Air Force Space Test Program 2 mission aboard a Space X Falcon 9 Heavy booster.
Tipping point partnerships
In 2016, STMD entered into their first set of public-private partnerships, a solicitation that proved very beneficial – to both industry and NASA. Called “Utilizing Public-Private Partnerships to Advance Tipping Point Technologies,” Jurczyk is pleased with this facilitated collaborative effort with industry. These partnerships require companies to contribute at least 25 percent of the funding; NASA contributes up to $20 million for ground-based efforts.
With the recent increase of the U.S. private sector interest in space applications, NASA is seeking commercial space technologies that are at a “tipping point” in their development.
“We do many one-on-one discussions with companies about their interests. For NASA, we want to help advance technologies that boost commercial products and services,” he points out. The Tipping Point partnerships have led to contracts, for example, in space robotic manufacturing and small spacecraft technologies.
Similarly, Jurczyk adds that in 2016, STMD saw collaborative opportunity for industry to tap into NASA expertise, allowing companies to use space agency talent and facilities. This collaboration is made possible through non-reimbursable, no-exchange-of-funds Space Act Agreements. Those types of agreements, he emphasizes, have enabled private-sector advancements in technologies such as small launch vehicle rocket engines and advanced structures for small boosters.
“It has been a good and productive year for STMD’s Flight Opportunities program,” Jurczyk advises.
That program provides affordable access to relevant space-like environments for NASA payloads. This activity makes use of a variety of flight platforms, such as Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle, Masten Space Systems’ XA-0.1B “Xombie” vertical-launch, vertical-landing reusable rocket, as well as the UP Aerospace SpaceLoft sounding rocket.
“We can ‘ring out’ experiments and technologies in short duration exposure to relevant flight conditions before they go onto longer duration flight on space missions,” Jurczyk explains. “It’s a risk reduction activity,” he continues, for example, in life science research or shaking out various robotic technologies.
Big year ahead
Looking into 2017, STMD’s Jurczyk highlights the launch of the Green Propellant Infusion Mission and the Deep Space Atomic Clock. “Those are two major flight demonstrations and are very important.”
Among a host of STMD-supported activities, next year will see flight of small satellites to showcase, for instance, optical laser communications. Then there’s the Integrated Solar Array and Reflectarray Antenna (ISARA) for advanced communications and the CubeSat Proximity Operations Demonstration (CPOD). The function of CPOD is to trial-run autonomous rendezvous and docking, Jurczyk says.
“There’s going to be a lot going on,” Jurczyk concludes. “It’ll be a big year for small satellites and space technology.”