NASA picks five companies to study solar electric spacecraft propulsion

NASA says solar electric propulsion could power a spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit

NASA tests methane engine here
NASA today said it picked five companies to begin exploring the feasibility of using solar electric propulsion to power future spacecraft.

According to NASA, multiple studies have shown the advantages of using solar electric propulsion to transport heavy payloads from low Earth orbit to higher orbits. The idea would be that traditional chemical rockets could deliver payloads to low Earth orbit and solar electric propulsion could then power a spacecraft to higher energy orbits, including Lagrange points or 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, NASA said.

More on space: 10 wicked off-the-cuff uses for retired NASA space shuttles

NASA said it 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," NASA said.

The companies picked to begin this solar power exploration will split $6 million to conduct the studies include:

  • Analytical Mechanics Associates Inc.
  • Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.
  • The Boeing Company
  • Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company
  • Northrop Grumman Systems Corp.

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