What was once thought of as science fiction is now a reality, thanks to the designers and engineers of top space agencies like NASA. A few of NASA’s missions include sending rovers to Mars, collect samples from an asteroid in the moon’s orbit, and advance aeronautics.
What does it take to make these spacecraft designs a reality?
From faster-than-speed-of-light spacecraft to solar electric propulsion to composite cryogenic storage tanks, the impossible is now a reality with expert designs and innovative engineering.
NASA is working on a spacecraft that will exceed the speed of light and make interstellar travel possible in the future. The designers behind this idea are NASA scientist Harold White and artist Mark Rademaker, along with their team, known as Advanced Propulsion Team Lead. The design is the IXS Enterprise, giving a nod to “Star Trek” and its ship’s warp drive capabilities in science fiction.
According to White and Rademaker, once a spacecraft like IXS Enterprise is operable, astronauts could travel to Alpha Centauri in as little as two weeks.
The IXS Enterprise will feature a central ship with two giant rings that create a warp bubble. To engineer this time warp jump, the ship needs to feature a spherical ring in the rear of the ship and another one in the front of the ship. This should cause space-time to move around the ship, pushing and pulling the ship forward at a faster speed.
This type of movement requires a material in aerospace engineering that works well under extreme temperatures of space. NASA currently uses silicone elastomer materials for docking and hatch seals, as well as other applications that require sealing.
The silicone elastomers are sticky and can cause issues with reopening a hatch or undocking, according to a published NASA report. The report recommends using one of three possible solutions: greasing the seals, applying low doses of atomic oxygen (AO) or applying doses of vacuum ultraviolet (VUV) radiation. Engineers are continuing their search for advanced products and materials to solve the challenges for future spacecraft.
Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) enables spacecraft to travel on longer missions with a higher safety rate due to using less propellant. The design of the SEP project allows the system to use solar arrays to electrically propel the spacecraft. NASA’s goal is to use spacecraft equipped with SEP for moving cargo as well as furthering space exploration.
The Space Launch System (SLS) is a promising project that will launch astronauts further into space. Deep space exploration is theoretically possible with the SLS and its Orion spacecraft. NASA plans to use the SLS to capture an asteroid near the Earth and move it into the moon’s orbit in order to collect samples. The SLS and the Orion spacecraft may be the space exploration vehicle used to explore Mars and other planets.
The completed design review occurred in 2015, and SLS moved into the production phase with every critical component currently in the process of development. The Orion spacecraft is the first human spacecraft NASA has designed and built in more than a generation and uses SEP technology.
Propellants are a challenge to spacecraft. NASA reports that most satellite thrusters use hydrazine to power the rocket, but this fuel is toxic and corrosive. The space agency is working on using various green propellants that work efficiently and safely. This will lower the cost of handling and storing dangerous fuels while reducing the amount of time spent processing the propellants.
NASA is testing environmentally friendly propellants like AF-M315E, developed by the Air Force Research and Laboratory, and LMP-103S, produced in Sweden by Eurenco Bofors. Not all spacecraft require the same propellant depending on the craft’s purpose. NASA has to determine which propellant would be optimal for faster craft or craft carrying cargo, and equip these vehicles with the proper storage.
Composite cryogenic storage tanks are taking the place of metal tanks. These tanks weigh less than their predecessors and are less expensive. The gasses used to fuel the rockets are chilled and then condensed to provide the rocket fuel needed for longer explorations. The manufacturing of the storage tanks, as well as the elimination of heavy joints, result in a leak-tight fuel tank.
Designing and engineering combine to create a disruption in the industry for the next generation while making deep space exploration a reality. NASA continues its search for brave new ideas and innovative solutions to current challenges.