At an anonymous looking facility in Redondo Beach, California, engineers are applying the finishing touches to a rocket engine that could be at the heart of NASA plans to take us back to the Moon, and ultimately Mars.
Developed by Northrop Grumman, the company behind the lunar module descent engine used for the Apollo landings, the so-called TR408 is a reaction control engine (RCS) designed to provide the subtle bursts of power required for delicate manoeuvres such as docking.
Engineered specifically for the ascent phase of a lunar lander, the engine runs on cryogenic liquid oxygen and methane which, the company claims, could be manufactured from materials in the lunar or Martian soil and atmosphere.
Outlining the design challenges, Gordon Dressler, chief engineer at Northrop's Propulsion and Fluid Products Centre, said for lengthy missions it is particularly important that the propellants are non-toxic, as the alternative air supply for astronauts is limited, and that they will not spontaneously ignite. It is also critical that exhaust gases do not contaminate the soil or atmosphere.
Fortunately, said Dressler, there is plenty of scope for innovation. 'Where I work we pride ourselves on being able to rapidly develop cutting-edge — some would call it bleeding-edge — technology to take on the challenges of advancing spacecraft propulsion,' he said.
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