Posted: 9 July 2018, 4:45 p.m. EDT
Speaker: Janet Kavandi, director, NASA’s Glenn Research Center
Lawrence Garrett, AIAA web editor
During her “Propulsion and Energy: Enabling NASA Missions Today and Tomorrow” keynote July 9 at the 2018 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Cincinnati, Janet Kavandi, director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said work and collaboration on propulsion technologies are paramount to achieving the next era of space exploration.
NASA’s Glenn is currently focused on a number of areas in thrust technology, including high-altitude and long-duration aircraft designs, passenger-carrying commercial aircraft — such as NASA’s X-59 QueSST concept — and hybrid-electric commercial aircraft. Kavandi said she hopes “to see a commercial-size 150-passenger type of aircraft with hybrid-electric designs” within the next couple of decades.
Glenn is already working on the X-57, an experimental, all-electrified aircraft system. Kavandi said the program’s goal is to make the technology suitable for larger aircraft and that the biggest challenge is determining best packaging for the required batteries.
“We’re working on packaging those batteries to make them safer so that eventually we can find the best packaging for the high-density energy storage systems that we will need for the larger aircraft,” Kavandi explained.
Another area of focus for Glenn, Kavandi said, is taking advantage of air flow, or boundary layer ingestion — the distorted air flow exiting traditional gas-powered turbines — via electric-powered engines.
“If we put an electric-powered engine in the aft end of the plane — one that’s capable of ingesting this distorted boundary layer through inlets and special blade designs — we could actually add the thrust, take advantage of that boundary layer, and take that thrust and add it to the propulsion of the aircraft,” Kavandi said.
The results could be anywhere from 7 to 12 percent of additional thrust, she noted.
Compact core technologies also must be advanced to make engines lighter and more efficient, Kavandi said.
“We’re working on ways to develop the smallest core capable and the different materials that are required,” she said. “3D printing will allow us to make smaller and smaller cores for future engines.”
Making smaller, more efficient propulsion systems is key to advancing NASA’s space exploration goals, Kavandi said, adding that NASA is working on the Space Launch System and the Lunar Orbital Platform--Gateway, a planned cislunar platform containing an experimental habitat. Gateway will be propelled by an all-electric system that is expected to generate about 50 kilowatts of power.
Janet Kavandi, director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, delivers remarks on "Propulsion and Energy: Enabling NASA Missions Today and Tomorrow," July 9 at the 2018 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Cincinnati.
Exploration Mission-1 is the next launch slated for Orion and the SLS program, Kavandi said, adding that launch is expected in a couple of years.
Highlighting the collaboration behind EM-1, Kavandi noted that it is being built as “a barter agreement” with the European Space Agency, explaining that ESA is responsible for providing the service module, which Airbus and Bremen are building.
Not only is NASA collaborating with Europe and the propulsion industry, but it’s also doing so via its 10 field centers, each of which has specialized capabilities, Kavandi said. For example, Glenn’s expertise is in electric propulsion, while NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s focus is on chemical.
“So, we share these capabilities so that we don’t unnecessarily duplicate efforts, to reduce costs, of course, to the taxpayer,” Kavandi explained.
Two other major areas of focus for Glenn are the Hall thruster and ion propulsion designs, Kavandi said, adding that in searching for the right solution, NASA is trying a new concept.
“We’re trying to go out and solicit what the state of the art is in industry on the commercial side and see how much of that we can take back and use at NASA without imposing so many specifications,” she explained. “We want to start out with small-scale commercial landers, non-human-rated type landers, and eventually we’ll get up to a human-rated lander.”
The challenge is how to power these things in such an environment as the moon’s, where there are 14 days of sunlight and 14 days of darkness, Kavandi noted.
“So, you need a system that can power through that whole time, so nuclear-generated power is probably the best way to go,” she said.
The technology, radioisotope power systems, has already been in use for several years on such spacecraft as deep space probes, Kavandi said. But, she added, some of the biggest challenges of enabling RPS is getting the plutonium.
“It is a great power source, and it’s very necessary to power a lot of these systems, but it’s challenging to use, challenging to make and expensive to make,” she said.
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