National Academies Press: OpenBook

New Frontiers in Solar System Exploration (2003)

Chapter: Technology Development

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Suggested Citation:"Technology Development." National Research Council. 2003. New Frontiers in Solar System Exploration. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10898.
Page 25

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Technology Development he exciting set of scientific goals outlined in this booklet will be made possible by a suite T of new power, communications, robotics, and instrumentation technologies that are cur- rently being developed. Electrical power is the most crucial factor in a spacecraft’s operations. Today, spacecraft pro- duce electricity with one of two technologies: solar panels or radioisotope power systems (RPSs). Solar panels work well in the inner solar system, but as a spacecraft moves farther from the Sun their utility decreases substantially due to the reduction in the intensity of sunlight. A spacecraft requiring a 1-square-meter solar array to satisfy its power needs in Earth orbit would require 25-, 100-, and 1600-square-meter arrays to supply the same amount of power at Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto, respectively. An RPS enables a spacecraft to, for example, operate for long periods of time in the region stretching from Jupiter and its moons to the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt. RPS tech- nology was used on the Voyager missions, as well as on Viking, Galileo, and Cassini. Solar panels and RPSs will both continue to be useful power-generating technologies in the next decade. In the future, a nuclear reactor spacecraft electrical system will enable scientists to craft a new generation of powerful instruments as well as to deploy advanced propulsion systems that will decrease the amount of travel time needed to get to other bodies in the solar system. Furthermore, these systems will enable spacecraft to sequentially orbit numerous solar system objects, thereby improving on the current flyby method of investigation. NASA is currently working on developing these systems, and the SSE Survey endorses these efforts. Building on research and development done by other federal agencies, NASA is studying the use of optical communications systems, which use laser light rather than radio waves to trans- mit information. Optical communications will allow spacecraft to return more data than is cur- rently possible, similar to the way broadband Internet connections enable faster communica- tions than those possible with dial-up modem connections. Our understanding of other places in the solar system will also be greatly enhanced by sam- ple-return missions. In fact, three of the SSE Survey’s recommended mission concepts involve the return of samples. As planetary exploration moves forward, returning samples of the basic “ingredients” that compose the solar system will become an integral element, providing a host of new challenges on the ground. For example, Earth-based, state-of-the-art analytical capabili- ties to study the returned samples must be developed. Instead of instruments for launch into space, extremely capable and sophisticated instruments for use in Earth-based laboratories must be developed to study and extract science information from the returned samples. A review of the analytical capabilities for sample analysis has identified the need for developing new instru- mentation and for upgrading U.S. laboratories. In addition, scientists and technicians must be trained to handle samples and to use the new instruments to analyze them. Finally, facilities must be built that will protect Earth’s environment from possible contamination by the returned samples, and vice versa. Artist’s conception of an advanced Jupiter mission powered by a nuclear-electric propulsion system. 25

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Over the last four decades, robotic spacecraft have visited nearly every planet, from torrid Mercury to frigid Neptune. The data returned by these Pioneers, Mariners, Vikings, and Voyagers have revolutionized our understanding of the solar system. These achievements rank among the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century. Now, at the opening of the 21st, it is appropriate to ask, where do we go from here?

In 2001, NASA asked the National Academies to study the current state of solar system exploration in the United States and devise a set of scientific priorities for missions in the upcoming decade (2003-2013). After soliciting input from hundreds of scientists around the nation and abroad, the Solar System Exploration Survey produced the discipline's first long-range, community-generated strategy and set of mission priorities: New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy. The key mission recommendations made in the report, and the scientific goals from which the recommendations flow, are summarized in this booklet.

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