19–22 August 2019
JW Marriott, Indianapolis, Indiana

Advancements in In-Space Propulsion Technology

Posted: 10 July 2018, 7:00 p.m. EDT



Panelists:
Moderator Ron Litchford, principal technologist for advanced propulsion, Space Technology Mission Directorate, NASA; Nicholas Case, lead for liquid engine systems analysis, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center; George Schmidt, chief, Propulsion Division, NASA’s Glenn Research Center; Jared Squire, senior vice president of research, Ad Astra Rocket Co.; Jonathan Witter, chief engineer, Advanced Technology Programs, BWX Technologies Inc.

by Hannah Thoreson, AIAA social media content specialist

A panel of experts in the July 10 session “The Future of In-Space Propulsion” at the 2018 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Cincinnati discussed advancements in in-space propulsion technology and said the field has changed dramatically in recent years.

Additive manufacturing has really changed the game, said Nicholas Case, lead for liquid engine system analysis at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

“Ten years ago, additive wasn’t something that was really used in rocket engines; it was kind of a new technology,” he said. “But today, almost every new rocket engine has additive manufacturing.”

Case cited numerous benefits for using additive manufacturing to design rocket engines, including major reductions in the number of parts and valuable time savings.

“Complex parts where you need intricate passages for cooling and stuff — we’re able to combine a lot of parts,” he said, mentioning one case in which a piece with over 100 parts was combined into just two parts. “We can just print the part and put it in the test stand and get the actual data.”

Dumbacher-and-Panelists-F135-LiftSystem-PropEnergy2018-9Jul2018

Participants in the panel discussion "The Future of In-Space Propulsion," July 9 at the 2018 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Cincinnati.

Ad Astra Rocket Co., best known for the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket engine, is bringing the VASIMR engine to technology readiness level 5 and hoping to eventually push for TRL-6, said Jared Squire, senior vice president of research at Ad Astra.

“We’ll be doing the 100-hour test of the rocket engine at 100 kilowatts,” he said. “So that’s a huge challenge to put 100 kilowatts inside a vacuum chamber and run it continuously.”

Jonathan K. Witter, chief engineer of Advanced Technology Programs at BWX Technologies Inc., discussed the pros and cons of using nuclear thermal propulsion for space exploration. NTP options weigh less and take up less space than other alternatives.

“You end up only burning about the size of a small toy marble” of weight for fuel with uranium, Witter said, adding that NTP also offers benefits from a logistics standpoint. “We can have shorter trip times and still have long duration stay times,” because of the high ISP and thrust-to weight ratio of NTP, Witter explained. “Up to about three months into the mission, we have an abort capability.”

However, panelists said, there are roadblocks to developing better NTP technology for space exploration.


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