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The rocket engine that could transform space travel

A plasma rocket engine that is now being tested gives a new promise for NASA’s space research plans.

NASA would get a budget boost under a new one The house’s expenditure plan, included for his return to the moon.

A novel analysis company has hired a team of veteran staff to raise its profile on Capitol Hill.

WELCOME BACK TO POLITICO ROOM, our must-read briefing on the politics and personalities that shape the new space age in Washington and beyond. Send us an email at [email protected] with tips, places and feedback, and find us on Twitter at @bryandbender. And don’t forget to check POLITICO’s astropolitics page for articles, questions and answers and more.

‘TOTAL TRANSFORMATION’: This is what the rocket company Ad Astra hopes to achieve in deep spaceflight as it continues to test its VASIMR plasma engine this weekend – with the goal of reaching 100 hours set by NASA.

“This is electric propulsion taken to a new power level,” the company’s CEO, Franklin Chang-Diaz, told us Thursday from Houston. “We have been following this goal for many years now. Assuming everything remains the same, the rocket seems to be comfortable and all temperatures stable. Everything seems to be in order. That’s a big deal for us. ”

How does it work? Chang-Diaz, a mechanical engineer and former NASA astronaut, calls the engine, with an exhaust temperature of 5 million degrees, an “alphabet soup of supercharged particles. This is what the sun and the stars are made of. ”

He added that “no other electric rocket has the capability. The most powerful operational electric rocket is 5 kilowatts. We have 80 kilowatts right now, and we have been driving for more than three days. No one has ever fired a rocket at this level. ”

Finally, the vision is “essentially to marry a source of nuclear power to the engine,” he added. “We believe that nuclear power is the end game.”

Why it can be a game changer: Ad Astra was the only one of the three companies to award NASA contracts in 2015 under the NextSTEP public-private partnership that is still ongoing. If it succeeds in completing the design phase, Chang-Diaz claims, the engine could provide fuel for a “total transformation of the transportation system.”

“We can see missions to Mars that can be two to three months one way and even faster than that as technology evolves,” he explained, compared to “seven to eight months and maybe even longer. That would change the way transportation is done. . ”

It also means “moving things from an orbit around the earth to the vicinity of the moon, picking up rubbish, relocating satellites, transporting supplies, essentially supporting a logistics traffic system,” he said.

When it comes to human spaceflight? “Less radiation, less consumer goods, everything is better,” Chang-Diaz said. A nuclear-electric motor will also mean that astronauts can more easily return or change course if necessary, unlike traditional spacecraft, which are actually designed to throw themselves at their destination. “When you have a rocket like ours, you really push all the time,” Chang-Diaz said.

What is his biggest concern? Right now it’s not about whether the engine will work; “It’s almost boring to watch,” he said. It is whether the company’s facilities can survive the test. “The vacuum requirements are extreme. It puts a lot of exhaust in a chamber. You have to remove it, ”he said. “The electricity we have to feed into the plant is very expensive. The facility is the challenge, at least now. Maybe a year ago I would have said that the rocket was the challenge. Now the facility is the challenge. ”

NASA BUDGET BOOST: This week, the House Appropriations Committee unveiled its version of the NASA budget for 2022, calling for an increase in funding for human space research, including a $ 150 million pledge to the Human Landing System program to return U.S. astronauts to the lunar surface.

But is it enough to finance a new design for HLS, as Congress wants? The space agency’s only award for SpaceX in April triggered a round of accusations and a couple of protests from teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics. SpacePolicyOnline has more about what it can all mean to return to the moon, and calls the panel’s proposal to choose a parallel design “lean.”

In total, the House Appropriations Panel approved $ 25.04 billion for next year’s space agency, nearly $ 2 billion over this year’s budget.

Read: The committee’s complete report on the expenditure bill for trade, science, justice and related agencies and the draft law.

NRO doubles down: Planet Labs announced on Thursday that the national reconnaissance office has renewed the contract for unclassified satellite images for defense and intelligence missions.

The super-secret NGO, which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, has increasingly relied on commercial images in recent years, and has opened up new opportunities for telesensing companies such as Planet Labs, BlackSky Global, HySpecIQ and Maxar. The agency said last year that it plans to award more such contracts in the future.

“This is a standalone award directly to Planet, but we are also awaiting a competitive request for commercial imaging services that will be open to more companies to compete,” a Planet spokesman said. The contract amount was not disclosed.

The original Planet Labs contract was signed in 2019.

Plus: The National Reconnaissance Office official chose to run the Space Force procurement command via Space News.

IN THE WILD BLUE YONDER: Richard Branson’s flight to the edge of space aboard the Virgin Galactics SpaceShipTwo went smoothly on Sunday. But an even bigger test for the booming space tourism industry is the “first human flight” scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday from West Texas in Blue Origin’s New Shepard, with a crew that includes the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos.

Who else should go? Blue Origin on Thursday appointed the final member of the crew, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, who will be the youngest person to travel to space.

Farewell gift: Amazon founder, who also owns The Washington Post, this week pledged $ 200 million to renovate the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington and build a new education center. It marks the largest single donation since the founding gift to the institution in 1846 from James Smithson.

“We are pleased that Jeff is committed to helping us expand the reach and impact of the Smithsonian, as we seek to inspire the next generation of scientists, astronauts, engineers, teachers, and entrepreneurs,” said Steve Case, chairman of the Smithsonian Board of Regents. in a statement.

More: Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will bring science to their Jews, through popular science.

And: Russia’s space chief wants his oligarchs invested in spaces such as Branson and Musk, via ArsTechnica.

AWAKENING? We checked in with a number of space policy experts for this week’s POLITICO’s China Watcher newsletter on what China’s recent run of great successes means for the future of space trade and exploration.

What to worry about: “The [Chinese Communist] The party has control over enormous state resources and can plan long-term sectors to finance, says Namrata Goswami, a space politician and co-author of “Scramble for the Skies: The Great Power Competition to Control the Resources of Outer Space”. ”

These sectors, she said, include the utilization of space resources such as mining on the moon and the development of renewable energy via space-based solar energy, as well as leaps and bounds in high-tech areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics and quantum computing.

“US policymakers have not understood that this is part of China building a space infrastructure that will benefit and help it catch up with the United States by 2049,” she said. “President Xi Jinping has taken his place as part of his focus on turning China from manufacturing into a high-tech and innovation sector with a focus on services.”

What could be next time? “They will test power rays in space, land reusable rockets, set up a lunar research station, build a solar cell satellite prototype, test 3-D printing of the moon, capture a small asteroid and return it to Earth, and fly nuclear-powered spacecraft,” said the retired Air Force. Lieutenant Colonel Peter Garretson, a space strategist who is now a senior fellow in defense studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.

These initiatives are “aimed at creating the building blocks for a ground-independent supply chain to become an industrial giant and dominant space force in space”, he added.

Will China treat space differently? Scott Pace, who served as executive secretary of the White House space council until January, says he has few illusions that Beijing will treat space any differently than its aggressive economic and security behavior here on earth. “Will Chinese behavior in commercial spaces be markedly different than in other commercial sectors?” Asked Pace. “Probably not. Will Chinese behavior in space be different than in other shared domains, such as the oceans? May be.”

Not everyone seems so worried. “China is definitely improving its capabilities, and the relative balance of power is changing,” said Brian Weeden, director of programming at the Secure World Foundation. “But it’s generally because they started from a much lower point than the United States did.”

“I’m not quite buying the China hype,” he added, “but I’m worried.”

LEARNING MOMENT: Kayrros, an Earth observation analysis company specializing in the energy sector with offices in New York and Houston, recently recruited an influential team of lobbyists in the S-3 Group “to train on Kayrros, a geospatial platform that utilizes satellites to provide global, real- time and granular measurement to better understand the energy market and associated infrastructure development, ”according to a recently published publication.

Kayrros’ lobby team includes Mike Ference, who was an assistant to former Representative Eric Cantor and sen Jim Inhofe and Roy Blunt; Matt Bravo, who worked for Representative Steve Scalise; Kevin Casey, former policy director for the Democratic Caucus; Olivia Kurtz, former Chief of Staff to Senator Susan Collins who also worked for former Representative Mike Castle; and Jose Ceballos, a former official of the Ministry of Transport.


Congratulations to Kevin Canole, a senior program specialist in the Office of International and Interagency Relations at NASA’s headquarters, to be the first to correctly answer that the Apollo 13 astronauts traveled the farthest of all humans from Earth.

Question of the week: How many moons are there in our solar system? And which is the largest and which moon is the smallest?

The first person to send an email [email protected] with the right answers get bragging rights and a shoutout in the next newsletter!

– NASA seeks proposals for commercial development of space stations: Space News

– NASA, Northrop Grumman completes contract for housing office for moon post: NASA

– NASA says that it has found out what is wrong with Hubble: futurism

– NASA identifies, addresses challenges for spacecraft development: Aviation Week

– Space startup Momentus hires former US defense member as CEO: Reuters

– Space startup Momentus sued by SEC for misleading investors: The Verge

China uses mythology and sci-fi to sell its space program to the world: The Space Review

– Israel’s SpaceIL secures funding for a new lunar mission: The Associated Press

– City-sized asteroids hit the ancient earth 10 times more often than expected: Space.com

– Star Trek’s warp drive leads to a new physics: Scientific American

TODAY: New Space The New Mexico State of the Space Industrial Base Conference continues.

TUESDAY: The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on “Spectrum Needs for Observations in Earth and Space Sciences” at 10 a.m.

TUESDAY: Washington Space Business Council will host NGO Director Chris Scolese at 1 p.m.

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