Last week, NASA unveiled a $17.7 billion spending plan for 2014 that included proposals to capture a small asteroid and position it near the moon so that astronauts could explore it by 2025. In order to pull off this audacious mission the administration is considering developing a Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) satellite, which allows for greater flexibility than traditional crewed spacecraft.
Solar Electric Propulsion technology is said to be one of the breakthrough propulsion systems of the future, allowing for deep space missions requiring larger payloads. SEP propulsion works by using traditional chemical rockets to get payloads in to low Earth orbit. Once there, solar electric propulsion systems can power spacecrafts to higher energy orbits and into deep space endeavors. SEP technology would also utilize technologies previously developed for the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, and would help to keep NASA on target to reach the President’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.
In a statement, NASA said: “Flying a demonstration mission on a representative trajectory through the Van Allen radiation belts and operating in actual space environments could reveal unknown systems-level and operational issues. Mission data will lower the technical and cost risk associated with future solar electric propulsion spacecraft. The flight demonstration mission would test and validate key capabilities and technologies required for future exploration elements such as a 300 kilowatt solar electric transfer vehicle.”