1.0 Introduction to the In-Space Propulsion Technologies Program
NASA’s In-Space Propulsion Technology (ISPT) Projects Office manages the research that is atthe forefront of NASA’s efforts to provide propulsion technologies that will enable a new era of scientific discovery in space. A portfolio of reliable, advanced propulsion technologies willenable science at new destinations, significantly reduce mission trip time and cost, increase thescientific payload mass fraction, and allow for longer on-station operations. Consequently, theTechnology Assessment Group (TAG) plays an integral role in identifying NASA’s futurechallenges and required activities for ISPT. Typical products of a TAG can be, but are notlimited to, activities such as technology roadmap development, technology readiness levelassessment, and recommendation of technology maturation strategies.A large number of the missions proposed by NASA’s Office of Space Science (OSS) requireorbits that escape the Earth’s gravity, whether to continue on to other planets, such as MarsOdyssey or Cassini, or to place scientific instruments in more useful orbits, such as SIRTF andMAP. Currently, these missions rely on the chemically-propelled upper stages of their launchvehicles to send them into these hyperbolic escape orbits. A typical example of this would bethe solid-propellant Star 48 motor used as the third stage of the Delta 7925. The low specificimpulse of these upper stages directly limits the amount of payload that a given launch vehiclecan send on one of these hyperbolic orbits.The Momentum-eXchange/Electrodynamic Reboost (MXER) tether would directly benefit thisclass of interplanetary missions by providing a significant fraction of the orbital energy needed toescape the Earth’s gravity well. In so doing, it would significantly reduce the amount of massrequired to be launched into low Earth orbit to accomplish these missions. A typicalinterplanetary mission utilizing a MXER tether boost would require only 40-60% of its standardmass. This reduction in launch mass would lead to the use of smaller and less expensivelaunch vehicles, and an overall launch savings to the missions that utilize a MXER tether facilitywithout the disadvantage of prolonged spiral trajectories through the radiation belts.Due to the multiuse and long-life characteristics of the MXER tether, its required technologyrepresents a significant advance over the state-of-the-art in tether technology. In order torealize its vision of lower cost access to space, advancements, but not dramatic breakthroughs,are required in many of the technologies that make it viable.
2.0 MXER Tether Concept of Operations
2.1 MXER Tether Configuration
As currently envisioned, the MXER tether facility would consist of a rotating, 100-120 km longtether with a number of masses and mechanisms distributed along its length. At the tether “tip”would be a mechanism to enable a rapid rendezvous between the tether and a suitablyprepared payload. Roughly on the other end would be a ballast mass, which would probablyconsist of the spent stage of the launch vehicle that inserted the MXER facility into orbit. Thetether itself would be composed of a material with a high specific tensile strength (tensilestrength/material density), coated or treated in some fashion to protect it against atomic oxygenand ultraviolet radiation flux. Additionally, the tether would be configured in a multi-strand,cross-linking configuration that would provide redundant load paths in the event that portionswere severed by micrometeoroids or orbital debris.