New space, electric propulsion … Focus on tomorrow’s rockets

2022 will be a crucial year for space exploration. While we will begin analyzing the first data sent by the U.S. James-Webb Telescope this summer, China should inaugurate its space station in September. A total of 19 launchers, six probes, a handful of landers and orbiters, two telescopes and a myriad of satellites were also to be launched during the twelve months of 2022. This year will also be the year that New Space, this wave of initiatives is private spatial organizations, which are gradually displacing public administrations, should really prevail.

2022 will be the first year in which more people go into space as customers than as public employees “, prophesies, for example, Tom Standage, editor-in-chief of the annual forthcoming special issue of the British magazine The Economist.

But behind the showcase for space tourism, 2022 will above all be the year of confirmation of certain future space propulsion technologies. NASA has entrusted the New Zealand start-up Rocket Lab mission with equipping a small satellite with its new ACS3 awning on its Electron microluncher, and its Psyche mission will be operated by the US specialist in Hall-effect electric propulsion. , Maxar technologies.

Beihangkongshi 1, from Chinese Spacety, the first satellite equipped with an iodine electric thruster, called NPT30-I2, designed by the French start-up ThrustMe. ROCKETMAN SHI – SPACETY

The French SMV Comat was to put the first satellite into orbit using electric vacuum arc technology, and the French start-up Gama wants to test its own awning before the end of the year.

New thrusters

Electric propulsion and solar sailing are old concepts, theorized around the 1960s, which had lost interest since, due to lack of performance comparable to traditional chemical propulsion. ” By reducing the cost of simpler engines as early as 2006, SpaceX ended this race for performance alone. “is reminiscent of Jean-Claude Traineau, space director at the National Office for Aerospace Studies and Research (Onera).

The commercialization of reusable launchers and the advent of three-dimensional additive manufacturing are helping to further reduce the price of these giant machines used to propel rockets and probes into space. For example, today SpaceX offers average launch prices of $ 4,700 to $ 12,600 per share. kilograms, while the prices of its biggest competitor, Arianespace, range between $ 8,300 and $ 18,700 per kilogram. kilograms using their launch vehicle. Ariadne 5.

At the same time, the satellites are getting smaller and smaller.

Of the 39 nano- and microsatellites (1-100 kg) launched in 2011, Starlink (SpaceX), OneWeb and others sent 389 in 2019 and 1,202 in 2020. And that is not about to stop: d According to a Euroconsult report published in April 2021 , 13,910 small satellites (less than 500 kg) were to be put into orbit by 2030, more than four times more than between 2011 and 2020.

These small satellites, which are generally launched in clusters, must move to reach their orbits, adjust their orientation or even de-orbit at the end of their lives – thus avoiding being added to the 10,000 tonnes of waste estimated to populate space in 2021. Enough to give his noble letters back to electric propulsion. Far from demonstrating as much performance as chemical motors – which have a bright future ahead of them for launches from Earth – electric motors are sufficient for rudimentary maneuvers on small machines.

Collection of Hall effect thrusters on NASA's Psyche space probe.

Collection of Hall effect thrusters on NASA’s Psyche space probe. nasa jpl caltech

Today, Stéphane Mazouffre, research director at the Icare Laboratory (CNRS), has 45 companies located in electric propulsion – excluding China. By democratizing these technologies, the latter will ” revolutionizes the world of satellites, just as SpaceX and Blue Origin have transformed the launch vehicle Does not hesitate to confirm Dan Goebel, researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and responsible for Psyche, one of the two future NASA missions planning to use Hall effect propulsion while the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) ), the mission that plans to send a probe into an asteroid in 2022 to deflect it, uses NEXT – for NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster – lattice ion engine.

As electric, propulsion with awnings experiences a new hour of glory. Motivated by the success of the Japanese Ikaros missions – for Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun – in 2010, and the American LightSail 2, in 2019, the young French entrepreneur Louis de Gouyon Matignon wants to place his microsatellite Gama in medium orbit around the earth. Alpha pushed by a 111 m2 solar sail, from 2023. The Solar Cruiser, the NASA probe powered by a giant sun sail (1,672 m2), will not be sent until 2025.

France, champion in electric propulsion

If space has long been the prerogative of the Americans, competed yesterday by the Russians and today by the Chinese, electric propulsion is very French. ” In this area, France has a unique ecosystem in the world “says Alberto Rossi, Head of the Department of Propulsion, Pyrotechnics and Aerodynamics at the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes).

On the research side, equipment from Cnes, CNRS and the National Office for Aerospace Studies and Research (Onera) is envied all over the world. But it is above all to our private sector, the doctor in electric propulsion refers. Safran is one of the two world leaders in Hall-effect electric propulsion for large satellites – together with Russia’s OKB Fakel. Although ArianeGroup manufactures its ion radio frequency thrusters in Germany, this joint venture is the result of a collaboration between two French companies, Airbus and Safran.

As for the Thales Alenia Space, it was born of an alliance between the French Thales and the Italian Leonardo. Not to mention new start-ups: Exotrail and its Hall-effect thrusters for nanosatellites, ThrustMe and its small grid thrusters, Comat and its solid propulsion engines, Ion-X and its electrospray thrusters and Gama, which aims to fly its solar sail into place as early as 2023. ” We are the only country with the statesUnited and maybeto be China, cover all propulsion technologies electric space ”Alberto Rossi welcomes.

Target Moon … and Mars

If electric propulsion and the sunshade manage to prove effective on devices larger than the small set, they can pave the way for deep space missions. Meanwhile, it is above all to support human return to the Moon that the major space organizations are interested in these cheaper propulsion methods, for example for supply missions on the future Gateway, the human lunar base. provided by NASA’s Artemis program.

With, in sight, the first step for a human on the ultimate goal of Mars, the United States and China. To achieve this, astronauts could use a third alternative propulsion method for chemical propulsion, nuclear propulsion.

The Deep Space 1 probe, launched in 1998 by NASA, was the first to use an electric motor.

The Deep Space 1 probe, launched in 1998 by NASA, was the first to use an electric motor. NASA / JPL

It will be difficult to use chemical or electric propulsion for opposition missions to Mars – one of two types of approaches to the planet that allow you to stay shorter but require more fuel than a connecting missionsays Jeff Sheehy, chief engineer at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. That is why the Agency plans to use nuclear propulsion. »

To date, no nuclear-powered mission is planned, but NASA has commissioned three concepts of such systems, whose funding will begin in 2022. Within ten or twenty years, solar sailing and nuclear propulsion will have found a place next to chemical and electric propulsion. “, Predicts Louis de Gouyon Matignon. The coming year will be crucial for him to be right. Or wrong.

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