The rapid development of high performance nanosatellite platforms is enabling NASA and commercial ventures to consider performing missions to the asteroids, the Moon, and Mars at lower cost and on shorter timelines than traditional large spacecraft platforms. Currently, however, opportunities to launch secondary payloads to Earth escape are rare, and using chemical rockets to propel secondary payloads from LEO rideshares to escape is problematic due to the risks posed to primary payloads. The NanoTHOR effort has explored the technical feasibility and value proposition for using a simple momentum-exchange tether system to scavenge orbital energy from an upper stage in geostationary transfer orbit in order to boost nanosatellites to Earth escape. A NanoTHOR module will accomplish rapid transfer of a nanosatellite to an escape trajectory by deploying the nanosat at the end of a long, slender, high-strength tether and then using winching in the Earth’s gravity gradient to convert orbital angular momentum into rotational angular momentum. In the Phase I effort, we developed and simulated methods for controlling tether deployment and retraction to spin up a tether system, and these simulations demonstrated the feasibility of providing delta-Vs on the order of 800 m/s with a simple, low-mass tether system. Moreover, the NanoTHOR tether can act as a reusable in-space upper stage, boosting multiple nanosatellites on a single launch and doing so with a mass requirement lower than that of conventional rocket technologies. Serving as an escape-injection stage, NanoTHOR can enable a 6U CubeSat to deliver small payloads to Mars orbit, lunar orbit, and rendezvous with at least 110 of the known near-Earth asteroids. Evaluation of the technology readiness of the component technologies required for NanoTHOR indicate that the hardware required is all mid-TRL, and the lower-TRL controls and integration components can be advanced to mid-TRL with modest investment. By scavenging orbital energy from upper stages without any stored energy or propellant requirements, NanoTHOR permits deep-space nanosat missions to launch on rideshare opportunities, enabling NASA and commercial ventures to conduct affordable and frequent missions to explore deep space destinations.
Robert Hoyt, Tethers Unlimited, Inc, NanoTHOR: Low-Cost Launch of Nanosatellites to Deep Space
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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