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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dawn's Early Light

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is beginning to send back low-resolution photos of the asteroid Vesta. This is presently for navigational purposes, to help better steer Dawn toward its rendezvous with the asteroid. Once it gets close enough to start sending higher resolution images, I'll be posting about it here.

Almost as important as Dawn's mission is Dawn's means of accomplishing its mission. Dawn is not a traditional chemical rocket, but rather a prototype of an ion engine, which is about ten times more efficient. This is likely the next important step in propulsion systems for travel within our solar system.

Yesterday NASA announced new mission concept studies of solar electric propulsion, which is basically a solar-powered ion drive. Good on NASA; in this time of massive budgetary constraint, it's good to see them moving forward on this.

NASA Issues Announcement For Solar Electric Propulsion Studies

CLEVELAND -- NASA issued a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) seeking proposals for mission concept studies of a solar electric propulsion system demonstration to test and validate key capabilities and technologies for future exploration missions.

Multiple studies have shown the advantages of using solar electric propulsion to efficiently transport heavy payloads from low Earth orbit to higher orbits. This concept enables the delivery of payloads to low Earth orbit via conventional chemical rockets. The use of solar electric propulsion could then spiral payloads out to higher energy orbits, including Lagrange point one, a potential assembly point in space between Earth and the moon. This approach could facilitate missions to near Earth asteroids and other destinations in deep space.

Science missions could use solar electric propulsion to reach distant regions of the solar system, and commercial missions could use solar electric propulsion tugs to place, service, resupply, reposition and salvage space assets. NASA's strategic roadmaps for exploration, science and advanced technology all consider solar electric propulsion a vital and necessary future capability.

NASA is examining potential mission concepts for a high-power solar electric propulsion system demonstration. Flying a demonstration mission on a representative trajectory through the Van Allen radiation belts and operating in actual space environments could reveal unknown systems-level and operational issues. Mission data will lower the technical and cost risk associated with future solar electric propulsion spacecraft. The flight demonstration mission would test and validate key capabilities and technologies required for future exploration elements such as a 300 kilowatt solar electric transfer vehicle.

This Solar Electric Propulsion Demonstration Mission Concept Studies announcement is open to all non-government United States institutions, academia, industry and nonprofit organizations. NASA anticipates making multiple firm-fixed-priced awards with a total value up to $2 million. The deadline for submitting proposals is July 18.

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