NASA just ordered megarocket thrusters for lunar missions until 2031

NASA just awarded a $ 3.19 billion contract to build rocket boosters for future lunar missions, destined for Artemis lunar missions through 2031.

The new award builds on a previous 2020 contract authorizing Northrop Grumman to prepare for the production and construction of twin thrusters for the next six Space Launch System megarocket flights after Artemis 3, which will carry the program through Artemis 9.

SLS, which will make its first unmanned flight in 2022, is tasked with sending crews across the solar system, starting with missions to lunar orbit, the lunar surface, or the planned Gateway lunar space station. The first manned orbital flight is expected in 2024 and the first landing mission in 2025.

NASA’s contract statement indicated that the award will be beneficial in helping the agency plan and grow the Artemis program to meet future needs.

Related: NASA targets February launch of its first lunar SLS megarocket

“The contract allows NASA to work with Northrop Grumman not only to build the thrusters for upcoming missions, but also to evolve and improve the thrusters for future flights,” said Bruce Tiller, manager of SLS thrusters at the Marshall Space Flight Center of NASA in Alabama.

SLS booster technology is based on solid rocket propellants used to assist NASA’s space shuttle during launches. Solid rocket boosters were used during 135 space shuttle missions between 1981 and 2011. The manufacturer was initially Thiokol, later called ATK. Northrop Grumman now has the technology thanks to a series of company mergers in the last decade.

The SLS thrusters are designed to be single-use (non-reusable, as requested by the shuttle program) and include a fifth segment on top of the shuttle’s four, NASA documentation indicates. Northrop Grumman’s statement on the new contract indicates that more design changes are already underway to the shuttle program, to begin flying during the ninth SLS mission.

This NASA graphic shows the stages of the Space Launch System rocket, including its solid twin boosters built by Northrop Grumman. (Image credit: NASA)

“The new … impellers will replace the steel bodies used for the shuttle with a weight-saving composite body and improved structures, electronic thrust vector control systems and propellant materials to address obsolescence,” the company said.

“This improved design,” Northrop continued, “further provides process simplification, an improved interface, and optimized ground processing … leading to increased productivity and efficiency.”

Orbital ATK, a predecessor to Northrop Grumman, began testing the booster system in 2009, after years of development. The SLS booster was originally scheduled to be the first stage of the Ares rocket under a canceled moon-to-Mars program known as Constellation, but the technology was eventually reused for SLS.

Northrop Grumman has been the leading manufacturer for SLS impeller development since it acquired Orbital ATK under an agreement announced in 2017.

This new announcement stems from a NASA charter contract of nearly $ 50 million in June 2020 to provide funding and authorization for future orders for Northrop Grumman reinforcements. Authorizes the production and operation of thrusters that support Artemis missions 4 through 8, along with the evaluation of a new thruster design to fly on Artemis 9.

As of December 2021, Northrop Grumman says it has ended production of impellers on Artemis 2 and that all segments of the Artemis 3 impellers have been fused with propellant. The Artemis 4 segments began airing in November.

Northrop Grumman is also executing other NASA contracts in support of lunar missions. This includes the construction of the abort motor and attitude control motor for the Orion spacecraft launch abort system, and the construction of an advanced habitat and logistics module for Gateway.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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