First the Moon and Then on to Mars.
It is important to have a goal and building a spacecraft of enormous capability is one thing. Proving it is another. After discussions with many people, it is clear that a flight to Mars is a clear winner, and so is the Moon. It seems that we have to decide – or do we?
I have therefore proposed a Moon flyby and on to Mars. We may not get too close to the moon as the change in direction may be too much to accurately set our trajectory to Mars and our ion engine will struggle to get us back on track. Keeping a distance from the moon will ensure that the trajectory change will be more predictable, but we will ensure that we get magnificent images of the moon and earth and maybe some great science too depending on our payload.
It will then be on to Mars for the cruise of a lifetime. The small blue dot and its moon diminishing with distance as the small red dot grows bigger. This may not be our first flight of the commercial ThunderStruck craft, but it will cement our position in space as a major player in the space sector and clearly place Australia on the map. Well it is a continent in its own right, but if we distorted the size of each country to show its progress in the sector, we will see that we are a tiny dot compared to so many other countries.
So what Makes ThunderStruck Possible?
Two things: New materials that give access to space at a wide commercial level and secondly, the drive of those in the group. I was going to say skill, but I considered my own case and I realised if there was something that I lacked, I got the right people in to address it. The skill is important, but at a secondary level. I am sure Elon Musk did not know too much about building the incredible spacecraft that the world has come to love, but he did have the drive and in his case the funding. Crowd funding and sponsorship will be the initial funding models to get this on the go and financiers will likely fund the final phases of this venture. The dollars are of secondary importance but absolutely essential. Without them ThunderStruck will not fly. A solid and clear business case and a low change of failure will drive the dollars.
Moon Mars – Why Choose when you can Have Both?
This will create tight launch windows for a Moon Mars mission and create fewer windows too. In fact we will have to work hard to ensure the maximum number of launch opportunities are available. We will not want to wait another 6 months to get the combination right. If this happens, the moon will have to be sacrificed, but until then, we are adamant that it will stay.
Imagine bringing back images like the ones below taken from NASA’s deep impact mission
Lunar transit of Earth: photo by Deep Impact-EPOXI, 2008
Learn more out this image at the link below:
So what will happen when we get to Mars?
There are several opportunities here and a space based camera is an old but true friend. Given the dollars spent so far by other countries, there is little that we could contribute to getting better pictures, so we will cross that off the list at this stage. Remember that things can change and this is not set in stone. I expect that the best way to demonstrate the changing face of space travel will be with new experiments and new technology. I suspect either a 200Kg lander, leaving the ThunderStruck craft in orbit as a communications relay or a more easily deployed set of cubesats that can each do science and again use the shepherding ThunderStruck craft as a communications relay, ensuring enough power to get the signal back to earth. Cubesats are tiny and they need to keep their power low. The relay is essential if they are to have power and space for their experiments.
No wings an no heat shield are needed for this flight. After Mars, who knows. Out there somewhere would be my best guess. This flight will not be returning to earth unless there are strong reasons to build it with that capability before launch. it will need an ion engine and settling into a low Mars orbit will take time with an ion engine. So will any attempt to leave a Mars orbit. It will be a slow climb out of the Mars gravity well. This was not important leaving earth as we had the benefit of a chemical engine in the climb out of earth orbit. We left hot and fast. Once the chemical engine was exhausted, it was dropped off and the ion engine kicked in. Ion engines have tiny thrust but continuous and they are very efficient. They can however be difficult to get in and out of any low orbit around a planet. So the spacecraft will be a plain body with cooling systems and solar systems. It will have the usual electronics, thrusters and communications and that is about it other than the payload and payload bay.
Given the stripped down version of the craft, we can also manage bigger payloads. the bigger the payload, the less influence the ion engine will have, but if speed to destination are not your goal, then this is not an issue. Having said that I expect that we will not have racing stripes!
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Below is a picture taken at a Mars simulation exercise here on earth. I was involved in a Methane detection experiment for Mars. It seems to have passed into oblivion, but it is great to have a Mars mission back on the table that is more likely to happen than one that hopes to compete to get a place on someone else’s craft.