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Robust Exploration and Commercial Missions to the Moon Using Nuclear Thermal Rocket Propulsion and In Situ Propellants Derived from Lunar Polar Ice DepositsThe nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) has frequently been identified as a key space asset required for the human exploration of Mars. This proven technology can also provide the affordable “access through cislunar space” necessary for commercial development and sustained human presence on the Moon. It is a demonstrated technology capable of generating both high thrust and high specific impulse (I(sub sp) ~900 s)— twice that of today’s best chemical rockets. Nuclear lunar transfer vehicles—consisting of a propulsion stage using three ~16.5-klb(sub f) small nuclear rocket engines (SNREs), an in-line propellant tank, plus the payload—can enable a variety of reusable lunar missions. These include cargo delivery and crewed lunar landing missions. Even weeklong “tourism” missions carrying passengers into lunar orbit for a day of sightseeing and picture taking are possible. The NTR can play an important role in the next phase of lunar exploration and development by providing a robust in-space lunar transportation system (LTS) that can allow initial outposts to evolve into settlements supported by a variety of commercial activities such as in situ propellant production used to supply strategically located propellant depots and transportation nodes. The processing of lunar polar ice (LPI) deposits (estimated to be ~2 billion metric tons) for propellant production—specifically liquid oxygen (LO(sub 2)) and hydrogen (LH(sub 2))—can significantly reduce the launch mass requirements from Earth and can enable reusable, surface-based lunar landing vehicles (LLVs) using LO(sub 2)/LH(sub 2) chemical rocket engines. Afterwards, LO(sub 2)/LH(sub 2) propellant depots can be established in lunar polar and equatorial orbits to supply the LTS. At this point a modified version of the conventional NTR called the LO(sub 2)-augmented NTR, or LANTR, would be introduced into the LTS, allowing bipropellant operation and leveraging the mission benefits of refueling with lunar-derived propellants (LDPs) for Earth return. The bipropellant LANTR engine utilizes the large divergent section of its nozzle as an “afterburner” into which oxygen is injected and supersonically combusted with nuclear preheated hydrogen emerging from the engine’s choked sonic throat—essentially “scramjet propulsion in reverse.” By varying the oxygen-to-hydrogen mixture ratio, LANTR engines can operate over a range of thrust and I(sub sp) values while the reactor core power level remains relatively constant. A LANTR-based LTS offers unique mission capabilities including short transit time crewed cargo transports. Even a “commuter” shuttle service may be possible, allowing “one-way” trip times to and from the Moon on the order of 36 hr or less. If only 1% of the postulated trapped water ice were available for use in lunar orbit, such a supply could support routine commuter flights to the Moon for many thousands of years. This report outlines an evolving LTS architecture that uses propellants derived from LPI and examines a variety of mission types and transfer vehicle designs along with their operating characteristics and increasing demands on LDP production as mission complexity and velocity change ΔV requirements increase. A comparison of the LDP production and mining requirements using LPI and volcanic glass to produce lunar-derived liquid oxygen (LUNOX) via the hydrogen reduction process is included, and the synergy with an evolving helium-3 mining industry is also discussed.
Document ID
Document Type
Technical Memorandum (TM)
Borowski, Stanley K. (NASA Glenn Research Center Cleveland, OH, United States)
Ryan, Stephen W. (NASA Glenn Research Center Cleveland, OH, United States)
Burke, Laura M. (NASA Glenn Research Center Cleveland, OH, United States)
McCurdy, David R. (Vantage Partners, LLC Brook Park, OH, United States)
Fittje, James E. (Vantage Partners, LLC Brook Park, OH, United States)
Joyner, Claude R. (Aerojet Rocketdyne, Inc. West Palm Beach, FL, United States)
Date Acquired
December 17, 2018
Publication Date
November 1, 2018
Subject Category
Engineering (General)
Report/Patent Number
AIAA Paper 2017ý5272
Funding Number(s)
WBS: WBS 469947.
Distribution Limits
Public Use Permitted.

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