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NASA Mega-Rocket Could Lead to Skylab 2 Deep Space Station

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#1 Crisp

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Posted 04 April 2013 - 18:16

NASA Mega-Rocket Could Lead to Skylab 2 Deep Space Station

NASA's first manned outpost in deep space may be a repurposed rocket part, just like the agency's first-ever astronaut abode in Earth orbit.

With a little tinkering, the upper-stage hydrogen propellant tank of NASA's huge Space Launch System rocket would make a nice and relatively cheap deep-space habitat, some researchers say. They call the proposed craft "Skylab II," an homage to the 1970s Skylab space station that was a modified third stage of a Saturn V moon rocket.

Posted Image
The original Skylab space station (left) launched atop a Saturn V moon rocket. Skylab II (right) would blast off atop NASA's Space Launch System.
CREDIT: NASA Images


"This idea is not challenging technology," said Brand Griffin, an engineer with Gray Research, Inc., who works with the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

"It's just trying to say, 'Is this the time to be able to look at existing assets, planned assets and incorporate those into what we have as a destination of getting humans beyond LEO [low-Earth orbit]?'" Griffin said Wednesday (March 27) during a presentation with NASA's Future In-Space Operations working group.

Posted Image
Astronauts would reach the Skylab II deep-space habitat aboard NASA's Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.
CREDIT: NASA /MSFC artist concept, Brand Griffin, Advanced Concepts Office


A roomy home in deep space

NASA is developing the Space Launch System (SLS) to launch astronauts toward distant destinations such as near-Earth asteroids and Mars. The rocket's first test flight is slated for 2017, and NASA wants it to start lofting crews by 2021.

The SLS will stand 384 feet tall (117 meters) in its biggest ("evolved") incarnation, which will be capable of blasting 130 metric tons of payload to orbit. Its upper-stage hydrogen tank is big, too, measuring 36.1 feet tall by 27.6 feet wide (11.15 m by 8.5 m).

The tank's dimensions yield an internal volume of 17,481 cubic feet (495 cubic m) — roughly equivalent to a two-story house. That's much roomier than a potential deep-space habitat derived from modules of the International Space Station (ISS), which are just 14.8 feet (4.5 m) wide, Griffin said.

The tank-based Skylab II could accommodate a crew of four comfortably and carry enough gear and food to last for several years at a time without requiring a resupply, he added. Further, it would launch aboard the SLS in a single piece, whereas ISS-derived habitats would need to link up multiple components in space.

Because of this, Skylab II would require relatively few launches to establish and maintain, Griffin said. That and the use of existing SLS-manufacturing infrastructure would translate into big cost savings — a key selling point in today's tough fiscal climate.

"We will have the facilities in place, the tooling, the personnel, all the supply chain and everything else," Griffin said.

He compared the overall concept with the original Skylab space station, which was built in a time of declining NASA budgets after the boom years of the Apollo program.

Skylab "was a project embedded under the Apollo program," Griffin said. "In many ways, this could follow that same pattern. It could be a project embedded under SLS and be able to, ideally, not incur some of the costs of program startup."

Posted Image
The Skylab II deep-space habitat would be made from the Space Launch System's upper-stage hydrogen tank.
CREDIT: NASA/MSFC artist concept, Brand Griffin, Advanced Concepts Office


Living beyond the moon

Griffin and his colleagues envision placing Skylab II at the Earth-moon Lagrange point 2, a gravitationally stable location beyond the moon's far side.

Over the past year or so, NASA has been drawing up plans for a possible manned outpost at EM-L2. A station there would establish a human presence in deep space, serve as a staging ground for lunar operations and help build momentum for exploring more distant destinations, such as asteroids and Mars, advocates say.

The Skylab II concept could also help ferry astronauts to these far-flung locales, Griffin said.

"You can build multiple vehicles," he said. "If we were to send this one, the first one, out to Earth-moon L2, you could build another that that could be a transit hab. So rather than having to go back and use space station parts, you would be able to pick these off the line."


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#2 DocM

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Posted 04 April 2013 - 18:53

SLS is a solution desperately looking for a problem, primarily because it's so expensive to build the superheavy version (>$34B) that after its development NASA has no money for other mission elements. The base version lifts half as much, 70 tonnes, but not so much more than Falcon Heavy's 53+ tonnes to justify its still considerable cost.

It's basically being driven by members of Congress whose districts lost pork after the Shuttle quit flying. That money gone they mandated SLS on NASA, needed or not. That's why it's privately called the Senate Launch System.

Just this week the RAND Corp. think tank recommended cancelling SLS in favor of using multiple flights of Falcon Heavy and other big launchers (ex: Atlas V Heavy) along with fuel depots instead of SLS, which would leave several $billion per year to do those missions, and then some.

#3 Hum

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Posted 04 April 2013 - 19:01

Just how 'Deep' in Space will they be ?

Like how they skip over the Radiation problem ...

#4 DocM

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Posted 04 April 2013 - 19:19

An exploration gateway, located at the L2 gravitational balance point on the far side of the Moon, would only he crewed in the runup to and during the passage of an interplanetary vessel. Other operations like most assembly and refueling would be robotic.

Not much radiation hazard there because of the infrequent habitation, but beyond Earth orbit missions need enhanced shielding. There are 3 good solutions, two of which are already available;

1) polyethylene radiation shields. Rich in hydrogen molecules they're light and handle most lower energy charged particles.

2) water & fuel tanks surrounding the habitat. These handle more energetic particles and most x-rays & gamma rays.

3) the third layer is in development at NASA and elsewhere; magnetic and electrostatic shields. Essentially artificial magnetospheres surrounding a spacecraft like Earths magnetosphere surrounds it.

The most recent version of a spaceship shield is NASA's, which mounts 6 expandable superconducting coils in an array around the habitat, whose fields guide most all charged particles around the structure. 2012 NASA presentation -

http://www.nasa.gov/...ymposium_r1.pdf

And they have issued a solicitation to have a test device built.

A European variant injects a plasma (ionized gas) into the field, enhancing its effect. Call it a deflector if you wish.

#5 HawkMan

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Posted 04 April 2013 - 20:38

That shielding sounds so heavy they would need the SLS in any case.

#6 FloatingFatMan

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Posted 04 April 2013 - 20:57

3) the third layer is in development at NASA and elsewhere; magnetic and electrostatic shields. Essentially artificial magnetospheres surrounding a spacecraft like Earths magnetosphere surrounds it.

The most recent version of a spaceship shield is NASA's, which mounts 6 expandable superconducting coils in an array around the habitat, whose fields guide most all charged particles around the structure. 2012 NASA presentation -

http://www.nasa.gov/...ymposium_r1.pdf

And they have issued a solicitation to have a test device built.

A European variant injects a plasma (ionized gas) into the field, enhancing its effect. Call it a deflector if you wish.


Essentially, a real world implementation of Star Trek's fictional "navigational deflectors".

I find it awesome that our technology is already starting to reach such levels!

#7 DocM

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Posted 04 April 2013 - 21:36

Yup, getting there. The European plasma shield's magnetic bubble can even be inflated to several kilometers across - large enough to act as a solar sail. Wild.

That shielding sounds so heavy they would need the SLS in any case.


Those expandable coil arrays are actually rather light since they're made of superconducting ribbon cables (thin), and their bulk is small enough to fold flat against the habitat hull until its Hoberman style deployment. The conduit for cooling fluid is actually rather small. In any case, equivalent solid shielding would mass in at many tens of tons.

#8 neoadorable

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Posted 08 April 2013 - 04:45

Great idea and very cost effective, looks like SLS isn't so bad after all Doc haha!

so now we have several planned or proposed deep space outposts, plus manned missions to asteroids and Mars. And this is on a cautious timeline. The 2020s and 2030s will be very interesting. Hope to be around to witness it!

#9 DocM

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Posted 08 April 2013 - 08:00

Actually, the only ones saying SLS is affordable are the politicians and policymakers, and their interest is its pork value.

Many/most NASA engineers call it "Frankenrocket" and beyond its maiden flights no one has a practical mission for it. This Skylab 2 idea is what I posted as an Exploration Gateway, and its bits can be launched using Falcon Heavy and/or Atlas V 551.

#10 neoadorable

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Posted 09 April 2013 - 03:35

Lets try to make the most of it if that's the path...i know NASA wants something else. Were it up to them and the people there would be thousands of humans on the moon and Mars by now, but governments and legislators have to account for spending.