NASA has awarded contracts to five companies to start researching how to power its proposed Deep Space Gateway, a way station that may one day orbit the moon and serve as a launch pad for flights to deep space.
This crewed space station is key to NASA’s plans for future missions to Mars and beyond. The agency awarded contracts totalling about $2.4 million to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Systems Loral. For the next four months, these five companies will study how they might develop a module to power and propel the Deep Space Gateway throughout its orbit around the moon.
All five firms will attempt to design a system that uses solar electric propulsion. That process starts by converting solar power into electricity. That electricity is used to ionise atoms of a propellant, commonly xenon, which are then shot out of the back of the engine by a powerful electric field.
The new NASA contracts fund studies on both a method of solar electric propulsion for the Deep Space Gateway and a way to power it. This module will be the first part of the gateway to launch, according to NASA’s plans. Other parts, like the module in which astronauts will live while they orbit the moon, will join it later.
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