Northrop Grumman has received a four-month study contract from NASA to study high-power solar electric propulsion flight system technology for the space agency’s future deep space and human exploration missions.

Northrop and its partners Sandia National Laboratories and the University of Michigan’s Department of Aerospace Engineering will create a technology road map for future NASA space missions.

Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems solar electric propulsion programme manager Jim Munger said: "In collaboration with our partners, Northrop is working on alternatives to the typical solar array approach."

"Our concept will be scalable to 300kW and beyond and have the potential for reducing the cost and complexity of high-power requirements," Munger said.

NASA is aiming to develop a high-power solar electric propulsion system to power a space tugboat that can ship satellites from low earth orbit (LEO) to geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) while saving fuel and secondary booster costs.

A new solar-powered vehicle would facilitate NASA to launch spacecraft to low earth orbit and then ship them to geosynchronous earth orbit which allows carrying much heavier payloads to GEO with the continual use of current launch vehicles.

The study is intended to develop mission concepts meeting the NASA Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 5 or greater allowing the prototype validated in a relevant environment (simulating space) and includes initial integration at some level with other operational systems.

Sandia National Laboratories functions under the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and undertakes research and development in the field of national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.
The project will be managed by NASA Glenn Research Centre, Cleveland, Ohio, US to design new technology for spaceflight enabling further exploration of the universe.