It’s the job of space engineers to keep spacecraft and a crew inside safe in a hostile space environment.
Both distance and duration demand that spacecraft must have systems that can reliably operate far from home, be capable of keeping astronauts alive in case of emergencies and still be light enough that a rocket can launch it.
It’s a complicated equation, but one that organizations like NASA have been managing for years. Designing a safe space environment has been especially challenging for space systems engineers working on NASA’s Orion project, which will take human beings into deep-space for the first time.
Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain astronauts during their missions and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities. Orion missions will launch from NASA’s modernized spaceport at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the agency’s new, powerful heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System.
Challenging deep-space missions frequently require large spacecraft velocity changes (delta-v) from advanced propulsion systems to reach their target and maneuver to obtain data and samples, and the missions often need significant power in extreme environments.
Advanced propulsion and power systems are thus critical elements in spacecraft design and play a role in determining overall mission capabilities and performance. In fact, the future of deep-space exploration depends on developing technologies in five key areas of advanced propulsion and power.
One of those areas is electric propulsion. This involves increased capabilities and higher-efficiency thrusters are being developed to reduce cost and risk, and to enable credible mission proposals.
Two other propulsion types, chemical and precision, are also crucial to successful space missions. Future large mission classes depend on increased capabilities in feed systems — such as pressurization systems, low-mass tanks and cryogenic storage components. In addition, advances in propulsion-system modeling are being developed to increase chemical thruster capabilities.
With precision propulsion, advances are being made in micro- and milli-newton thruster development to provide extended life and reliability for precision formation flying and orbit control in next-generation Earth-observation and other science missions.
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