Energy and Climate

Bringing together expertise in advanced Brayton power conversion systems, concentrated solar collector technology and space system design and analysis, Sandia National Laboratories (partnering with Northrup Grumman Aerospace Systems and the University of Michigan) has developed a solar electric propulsion concept capable of a wide array of missions for NASA. This multipurpose space vehicle concentrates the Sun’s energy into a Sandia designed solar collector using a large reflector to power a Sandia designed Brayton engine. The conceptual design is scalable up to 300-kWe and can even be redesigned to use a nuclear reactor as the heat source for large missions far from the sun.

Conceptual drawing of a Solar Electric Propulsion space vehicle.

Conceptual drawing of a Solar Electric Propulsion space vehicle.

Using this type of “solar dynamics” for the power system avoids the pitfalls of scaling typical photovoltaic systems to this power level. If coupled to a nuclear reactor, the design then becomes independent of the distance from the sun and would be able to perform deep space, medium- to high-power missions without dramatically increasing the size.

Unique features:

  • Sandia’s expertise and capabilities for advanced Brayton power conversion cycles allows for the ideal system for solar electric propulsion to be designed, tested and qualified.
  • Utilizing Sandia’s solar test facilities, large shake tables, and nearby vacuum test chambers at the Air Force Research Laboratory, a solar electric propulsion system could be ground tested, ensuring proper performance under all conditions.
  • The system can be scaled from a demonstration mission size of 20-kWe to 300-kWe to reduce development time and costs.

Possible space vehicle missions:

  • Relocation of retired satellites to disposal orbit.
  • Transfer of cargo to the moon or Mars.
  • Transport of satellites from low launch orbits to higher, geosynchronous or geostationary orbits, allowing for greatly reduced launch requirements.
  • Utilizing the high power of a nuclear powered spacecraft:
    • Deep penetrating radar mapping of the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
    • Deep penetrating radar mapping of near earth objects.
    • High-resolution radar mapping of Venus.
    • Orbital surveys of numerous moons sequentially in the Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune systems.

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