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A View from Brittany Sauser

Space News this Week: An ESA Spacecraft, New Moon Images, and Solar-Electric Propulsion

A new European re-entry vehicle, unprecedented moon images, and a call for solar electric propulsion systems.

  • June 24, 2011

ESA Spacecraft

ESA’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle. Credit: ESA

The European Space Agency announced that its re-entry spacecraft, called Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), will be ready to fly in 2013. The agency first announced the vehicle concept in 2009. Now the detailed design and technologies are ready and the agency has partnered with Thales Alenia Space Italia to manufacture the vehicle. Its first flight will be in 2013.

According to the press release,

Europe’s ambition for a spacecraft to return autonomously from low orbit is a cornerstone for a wide range of space applications, including space transportation, exploration and robotic servicing of space infrastructure.

This goal will be achieved with IXV, which is the next step from the Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator flight of 1998. More maneuverable and able to make precise landings, IXV is the ‘intermediate’ element of Europe’s path to future developments with limited risks.

The new spacecraft, which resembles a wing-less space shuttle and it s test vehicle, will launch aboard a small ESA rocket, reaching an altitude of 450 kilometers. It will test technologies like advanced thermal protection systems, new guidance, navigation and control systems, and will collect lots of data. It will operate autonomously. It could be proving ground for ESA to develop a vehicle that can travel to the space station or other destinations.

Moon Images

Credit: NASA

Data from seven instruments onboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), a spacecraft orbiting the moon since 2009, have provided amazing detailed images and maps of the moon’s surface, showing craters and topography that have never before been seen.

According to the NASA press release,

The most precise and complete topographic maps to date of the moon’s complex, heavily cratered landscape have been created from the more than 4 billion measurements – and still counting – taken by LRO’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA). These maps are more accurate and sample more places on the lunar surface than any available before. In fact, LOLA has taken more than 100 times more measurements than all previous lunar instruments of its kind combined, opening up a world of possibilities for future exploration and for science.

Already, researchers have used LOLA data to put together the first comprehensive set of maps of the roughness of the moon’s surface. Like wrinkles on skin, the roughness of craters and other fetures on the moon’s surface can reveal their age. By looking at where and how the roughness changes – and by combining that information with contour maps that show where the high and low points are – researchers can get important clues about the processes that shaped the moon.

Solar Electric Propulsion

To reach destinations beyond low Earth orbit spacecraft needs propulsion systems that are efficient and powerful. Chemical propulsion systems are most commonly used for spacecraft, but they require large amounts of fuel and are inefficient for deep space missions. Now NASA is seeking proposals for mission concepts of solar electric propulsion systems. The systems use solar panels to generate electricity that gives a positive charge to atoms inside a chamber, which are pulled by magnetism towards the back of the spacecraft and pushed out. The stream of atoms going out of the spacecraft gives it the thrust it needs to move through space. (The agency tested an ion-propulsion system it developed in 2009 and expects it to launch in 2013.)

According to the release,

Science missions could use solar electric propulsion to reach distant regions of the solar system, and commercial missions could use solar electric propulsion tugs to place, service, resupply, reposition and salvage space assets. NASA’s strategic roadmaps for exploration, science and advanced technology all consider solar electric propulsion a vital and necessary future capability.

NASA 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.

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