NASA seeks to delve deeper into the mysteries of our solar system with the help of astronauts, but cost remains a significant barrier for any plans. Launching anything from Earth is costly, especially bulky loads of cargo — the driving force behind the inflated the price of the Apollo moon program to $109 billion (in 2010 dollars). For spaceflight to ever be accessible to everyone, prices will need to drop substantially.
Fortunately, scientists are thinking of new ways to make space travel cheaper every day. Research describing one of these ideas was just published: an electric-powered lunar space tug. The reusable tug would fly between Earth and the moon, transporting cargo and possibly even technicians and other astronauts. It would be refueled at a low Earth orbit fuel depot and maintained by astronauts on the moon and the International Space Station (ISS) for as long as it’s in service.
A team from aerospace company Thales Alenia (which built several modules for the ISS) and the Polytechnic University of Turin are now studying the conceptual design for the tug. The greatest advantage the tug has is that it would run on Hall Effect Thrusters, which use electric propulsion. In this sense, the tug would be powered much like NASA’s Dawn spacecraft and Japan’s Hayabusa 2.
Bargain Basement Race
This project is just one of many possibilities, as the competition to find ways to explore space for less money is still heating up. This month SpaceX became the first privately owned company to use the same spacecraft to perform multiple orbital flights. Still, even SpaceX has competition: Bigelow Airspace, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing are all competing for space travel contracts. This healthy competition is quickly changing the costs associated with space travel, and ultimately will open the opportunity up to commercial passengers, much in the same way competition between airlines helped make flying commonplace in the last century.