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Aerocapture Design Study for a Titan Polar OrbiterIn 2014 a team at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) studied the feasibility of using active aerocapture to reduce the chemical Delta V requirements for inserting a small scientific satellite into Titan polar orbit. The scientific goals of the mission would be multi-spectral imaging and active radar mapping of Titan's surface and subsurface. The study objectives were to: (i) identify and select from launch window opportunities and refine the trajectory to Titan; (ii) study the aerocapture flight path and refine the entry corridor; (iii) design a carrier spacecraft and systems architecture; (iv) develop a scientific and engineering plan for the orbital portion of the mission. Study results include: (i) a launch in October 2021 on an Atlas V vehicle, using gravity assists from Earth and Venus to arrive at Titan in January 2031; (ii) initial aerocapture via an 8-km wide entry corridor to reach an initial 350X6000 km orbit, followed by aerobraking to reach a 350X1500 km orbit, and a periapse raise maneuver to reach a final 1500 km circular orbit; (iii) a three-part spacecraft system consisting of a cruise stage, radiator module, and orbiter inside a heat shield; (iv) a 22-month mission including station keeping to prevent orbital decay due to Saturn perturbations, with 240 Gb of compressed data returned. High-level issues identified include: (i) downlink capability - realistic downlink rates preclude the desired multi-spectral, global coverage of Titan's surface; (ii) power - demise of the NASA ASRG (Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator) program, and limited availability at present of MMRTGs (Multi-Mission Radioisotope Generators) needed for competed outer planet missions; (iii) thermal - external radiators must be carried to remove 4 kW of waste heat from MMRTGs inside the aeroshell, requiring heat pipes that pass through the aeroshell lid, compromising shielding ability; (iv) optical navigation to reach the entry corridor; (v) the NASA requirement of continuous critical event coverage for the orbiter, especially during the peak heating of the aerocapture when the radio link will be broken. In conclusion, although Titan aerocapture allows for considerable savings in propellant mass, this comes at a cost of increased mission complexity. Further architecture study and refinement is required to reduce high-level mission risks and to elucidate the optimum architecture.
Document ID
Document Type
Conference Paper
Nixon, Conor A.
(NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt, MD United States)
Kirchman, Frank
(NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt, MD United States)
Esper, Jaime
(NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt, MD United States)
Folta, David
(NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt, MD United States)
Mashiku, Alinda
(NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt, MD United States)
Date Acquired
July 19, 2017
Publication Date
March 5, 2016
Subject Category
Lunar And Planetary Science And Exploration
Report/Patent Number
Meeting Information
IEEE Aerospace Conference, 2016(Big Sky, MT)
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.

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