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Title: Operations of a Radioisotope-based Propulsion System Enabling CubeSat Exploration of the Outer Planets

Exploration to the outer planets is an ongoing endeavor but in the current economical environment, cost reduction is the forefront of all concern. The success of small satellites such as CubeSats launched to Near-Earth Orbit has lead to examine their potential use to achieve cheaper science for deep space applications. However, to achieve lower cost missions; hardware, launch and operations costs must be minimized. Additionally, as we push towards smaller exploration beds with relative limited power sources, allowing for adequate communication back to Earth is imperative. Researchers at the Center for Space Nuclear Research are developing the potential of utilizing an advanced, radioisotope-based system. This system will be capable of providing both the propulsion power needed to reach the destination and the additional requirements needed to maintain communication while at location. Presented here are a basic trajectory analysis, communication link budget and concept of operations of a dual-mode (thermal and electric) radioisotope-based propulsion system, for a proposed mission to Enceladus (Saturnian icy moon) using a 6U CubeSat payload. The radioisotope system being proposed will be the integration of three sub-systems working together to achieve the overall mission. At the core of the system, stored thermal energy from radioisotope decay ismore » transferred to a passing propellant to achieve high thrust – useful for quick orbital maneuvering. An auxiliary closed-loop Brayton cycle can be operated in parallel to the thrusting mode to provide short bursts of high power for high data-rate communications back to Earth. Additionally, a thermal photovoltaic (TPV) energy conversion system will use radiation heat losses from the core. This in turn can provide the electrical energy needed to utilize the efficiency of ion propulsion to achieve quick interplanetary transit times. The intelligent operation to handle all functions of this system under optimized conditions adds to the complexity of the mission architecture.« less
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Conference: SpaceOps 2014 13th International Conference on Space Operations,Pasadena Convention Center Pasadena, California,05/05/2014,05/09/2014
Research Org:
Idaho National Laboratory (INL)
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Country of Publication:
United States
33 ADVANCED PROPULSION SYSTEMS CERMET; Radioisotope Thermal Rocket; Thermal Capacitor