Space Agencies Moving Forward with New Rocket Engine, Asteroid Mission

Government astronaut

Image via NASA.gov

The Air Force and NASA have unveiled new space-related initiatives in recent weeks that could create opportunities for job seekers here on Earth.

The Air Force, which wants to stop relying on Russian-made RD-180 engines for the satellite-launching Atlas 5 rocket, plans to issue a draft request for proposals (RFP) in April for an American-made engine. The draft RFP is expected to help the military service determine what industry teams would compete and how much of their own money they would contribute to a new engine’s development.

Aerojet Rocketdyne and Blue Origin have both publicly touted design concepts they see as possible successors to the RD-180. Orbital ATK and SpaceX are also seen as potential competitors. A new engine is expected to require major design changes to the Atlas 5, possibly resulting in a new rocket.

To jumpstart the Air Force engine effort, the Air Force Research Laboratory and NASA are already conducting “technology maturation and risk reduction activities for the most challenging, highest risk aspects to developing a rocket propulsion system,” Air Force acquisition chief William LaPlante testified before a congressional panel in mid-March.

Next Gen GPS

The Air Force is also exploring holding a new competition to build some of the satellites for its next-generation Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation, GPS III. Although Lockheed Martin won the original GPS III competition seven years ago and is building the initial group of navigation satellites, the program has experienced cost overruns and schedule delays.

A re-competition would likely be for the 11th satellite and beyond, according to David Madden, executive director of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. Boeing and Northrop Grumman, which built earlier versions of GPS satellites, have both expressed interest in entering a competition, which could begin as early as 2016, Madden said at a breakfast event in mid-March in Washington, D.C.

Exploring the Moon

Last but not least, NASA announced March 25 that its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) will entail capturing a boulder from a near-Earth asteroid and moving it into an orbit around the moon so astronauts could explore it in the mid-2020s.

NASA said there is strong industry interest in the ARM mission and that it will finalize its equipment acquisition strategy in July. Grabbing and moving the boulder will be done by a robotic spacecraft that NASA wants to launch in 2020.

The spacecraft’s robotic arms will capture the boulder from the asteroid’s surface. Relocating the boulder to lunar orbit will then take about six years. The ARM spacecraft will test technologies needed for future human missions, including advanced solar electric propulsion, which “can move massive cargo very efficiently,” NASA said.

Marc Selinger is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance writer specializing in aerospace/defense. He can be reached at marc2255@yahoo.com.

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