Working the Problem: Deep Space Repair

Working the Problem: Deep Space Repair

RIME (Radar for Icy Moons Exploration) is the first instrument ever deployed to the outer Solar System that can make direct measurements of conditions below the surface of an object. That makes it precisely tailored for Europa as well as Ganymede and Callisto, two other Galilean moons that also seem to have an internal ocean. Consider it a radar ‘sounder’ that can penetrate up to 9 kilometers below surface ice. RIME is a major part of why JUICE is going to the moons of Jupiter.

Consider it problematic as well, at least for the moment, while controllers working the JUICE mission try to solve an unexpected deployment issue. The 16-meter long antenna shows movement, but continues to have trouble in becoming released from its mounting bracket. The antenna is currently about a third of its full intended length, according to ESA, partially extended but still stowed away.

Image: Shortly after launch on 14 April, ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, JUICE, captured this image with its JUICE monitoring camera 2 (JMC2). JMC2 is located on the top of the spacecraft and is placed to monitor the multi-stage deployment of the 16 m-long Radar for Icy Moons Exploration (RIME) antenna. RIME is an ice-penetrating radar that will be used to remotely probe the subsurface structure of the large moons of Jupiter. In this image, RIME is seen in stowed configuration. The image was taken at 14:19 CEST. JMC images provide 1024 x 1024 pixel snapshots. Credit: ESA.

Given that two months of commissioning remain for the spacecraft, the agency is saying that there is abundant time to work the problem out, which may involve something as simple as a stuck pin, potentially sprung by warming the radar mount by rotating the spacecraft and turning the assembly into direct sunlight.

The memory of the Galileo probe to Jupiter hovers over the mission at least momentarily. Controllers never did free up Galileo’s high-gain antenna, though they were able to return outstanding data through ingenious use of its low-gain counterpart. Needless to say, the hope here is that RIME follows a different path and soon springs free.

In-flight adjustment and occasional repair are no strangers to deep space missions. We’re reminded of this also by the plan to save precious energy and keep Voyager 2 (and potentially Voyager 1) operational for a few years longer than previously thought possible. Both craft rely on RTGs (radioisotope thermoelectric generators) converting heat from plutonium into electricity, so that plutonium decay produces less power each year. Hence the need to turn off unneeded heaters and other systems to reserve power.

The new method: Use power heretofore reserved for a voltage regulator that triggers a backup circuit in the event of a serious fluctuation in voltage. Power is set aside in the spacecraft’s RTG for that purpose, but can be redirected to keeping the craft’s five science instruments operating until 2026. That gives up a certain safety measure, but even after 45 years in flight, the electrical systems on Voyagers 1 and 2 remain stable, so it seems a good gamble to produce further interstellar science. If the approach works for Voyager 2, it may be tried on Voyager 1 in the near future.

Suzanne Dodd is Voyager project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

“Variable voltages pose a risk to the instruments, but we’ve determined that it’s a small risk, and the alternative offers a big reward of being able to keep the science instruments turned on longer. We’ve been monitoring the spacecraft for a few weeks, and it seems like this new approach is working.”

Image: Each of NASA’s Voyager probes are equipped with three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), including the one shown here. The RTGs provide power for the spacecraft by converting the heat generated by the decay of plutonium-238 into electricity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Anything we can do to keep these priceless assets functioning is to the good. They are our only operational craft outside the heliosphere, a striking thought given their projected mission duration of a scant four years. Operating without one of its science instruments, which failed much earlier in the mission, Voyager 1’s power issues are slightly less pressing than its twin, but decisions about shutting down another instrument still loom, so the new RTG power draw may again come into play.



Take a look at our missions to Jupiter in context. The image below shows the history back to 1973, with the launch of Pioneer 10, and of course, the Voyager encounters. We also have the flybys by Ulysses, Cassini and New Horizons, each designed for other destinations, for Jupiter offers that highly useful gravitational assist to help us get places fast. JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) joins the orbiter side of the image tomorrow, with launch aboard an Ariane 5 from Kourou (French Guiana) scheduled for 1215 UTC (0815 EDT) on Thursday. You can follow the launch live here or here.

The first gravitational maneuver will be in August of next year with a Lunar-Earth flyby, followed by Venus in 2025 and then two more Earth flybys (2026 and 2029) before arrival at Jupiter in July of 2031. I’ve written a good deal about both Europa Clipper and JUICE in these pages and won’t go back to repeat the details, but we can expect 35 icy moon flybys past Europa, Ganymede and Callisto before insertion into orbit at Ganymede, making JUICE the first mission that will go into orbit around a satellite of another planet. Needless to say, we’ll track JUICE closely in these pages.

Image: Ariane 5 VA 260 with JUICE, start of rollout on Tuesday 11 April. Credit for this and the above infographic: ESA.


A Mission Architecture for the Solar Gravity Lens

Over the past several years we’ve looked at two missions that are being designed to go beyond the heliosphere, much farther than the two Voyagers that are our only operational spacecraft in what we can call the Local Interstellar Medium. Actually, we can be more precise. That part of the Local Interstellar Medium where the Voyagers operate is referred to as the Very Local Interstellar Medium, the region where the LISM is directly affected by the presence of the heliosphere. The Interstellar Probe design from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Solar Gravity Lens (SGL) mission would pass through both regions as they conduct their science operations.

Both probes have ultimate targets beyond the VLISM, with Interstellar Probe capable of looking back at the heliosphere as a whole and reaching distances are far as 1000 AU still operational and returning data to Earth. The SGL mission begins its primary science mission at the Sun’s gravitational lens distance on the order of 550 AU, using the powerful effects of gravity’s curvature of spacetime to build what the most recent paper on the mission calls “a ‘telescope’ of truly gigantic proportions, with a diameter of that of the sun.” The vast amplification of light would allow a planet on the other side of the Sun to be imaged at stunning levels of detail.

Image: This is Figure 1 from the just released paper on the SGL mission. Caption: A visualization of the key primary optical axes (POA) and the projected image plane of the exoplanet. The imaging spacecraft is the tiny element in front of the exoplanet image plane. Credit: Helvajian et al.

Let’s poke around a bit in “Mission Architecture to Reach and Operate at the Focal Region of the Solar Gravitational Lens,” just out in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, which sets out the basics of how such a mission could be flown. Remember that this work has proceeded through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) office, with Phase I, II and now III studies resulting in the refinement of a design that can satisfy the requirements of the heliophysics decadal survey. JHU/APL’s Interstellar Probe takes aim at the same decadal, with both missions designed to return data relevant to our own star and, in SGL’s case, a more distant one.

Given that it has taken Voyager 1 well over 40 years to reach 159 AU, getting a payload to the gravitational lens region for operations there and beyond as the craft departs the Sun is a challenge. But the rewards would be great if it can be made to happen. The JPL work and a great deal of theoretical study prior to it have revealed that an optical telescope of no more than meter-class equipped with an internal coronagraph for blocking the Sun’s light would see light from the target exoplanet appearing in the form of an ‘Einstein ring’ surrounding the solar disk. High-resolution imagery of an exoplanet can be extracted from this data. We can also trade spatial for spectral resolution. From the paper:

The direct high-resolution images of an exoplanet obtained with the SGL could lead to insight on the on-going biological processes on the target exoplanet and find signs of habitability. By combining spatially resolved imaging with spectrally resolved spectroscopy, scientific questions such as the presence of atmospheric gases and its circulation could be addressed. With sufficient SNR and visible to mid-infrared (IR) sensing [26], the inspection of weak biosignatures in the form of secondary metabolic molecules like dimethyl-sulfide, isoprene, and solid-state transitions could also be probed in the atmosphere. Finally, the addition of polarimetry to the spatially and spectrally resolved signals could provide further insight such as atmospheric aerosols, dust, and, on the ground, properties of the regolith (i.e., minerals) and bacteria and fauna (i.e., homochirality)…

I won’t labor the issue, as we’ve discussed gravity lens imaging on many an occasion in these pages, but I did want to make the point about spectroscopy as a way of underlining the huge reward obtainable from a mission that can collect data at these distances. The paper is rich in detailing the progress of our thinking on this, but I turn to the mission architecture for today, offering as it does a remarkable new way to conceive of deep space missions both in terms of configuration and propulsion. For we’re dealing here with spacecraft that are modular, reconfigurable and highly adaptable using clusters of spacecraft that practice self-assembly during cruise.

The SGL mission is based on a constellation of identical craft, the primary components being what the authors call ‘proto-mission capable’ (pMC) spacecraft, with final ‘mission capable’ (MC) craft being built as the mission proceeds. Smaller pMC nanosats, in other words, dock during cruise to build an MC; five or perhaps six of the latter are assumed in the mission description in this paper to allow full capability during the observational period within the focal region of the gravity lens. The pMC craft use solar sails for a close pass by the Sun, all of them launched into a parking orbit before deployment toward the Sun. The sailcraft fly in formation following perihelion, dispose of their thermal shielding, then their sails, and begin assembly into MC spacecraft.

How to separate a final, fully functional MC craft into the constituent units from which it will be assembled in flight is no small issue, and bear in mind the need for extreme adaptability, especially as the craft reach the gravitational lensing region. Near-autonomous operations are demanded. The SGL study used simulations based on current engineering methodology (CEM) tools, modifying them as needed. The need for in-flight assembly stood out from the alternative. From the paper;

Two types of distributed functionality were explored: a fractionated spacecraft system that operates as an “organism” of free-flying units that distribute function (i.e., virtual vehicle) or a configuration that requires reassembly of the apportioned masses. Given that the science phase is the strong driver for power and propellant mass, the trade study also explored both a 7.5-year (to ?800 AU) and 12.5-year (to ?900 AU) science phase using a 20 AU/year exit velocity as the baseline. The distributed functionality approach that produced the lowest functional mass unit is a cluster of free-flying nanosatellites (i.e., pMC) each propelled by a solar sail but then assembled to form an MC spacecraft.

Out of all this what emerges is a pMC design with the capability of a 6U CubeSat nanosatellite, self-contained and three-axis stabilized, each of these units to carry a critical part of the larger MC spacecraft. Power and data are shared as the pMCs dock. The current design for the pMC is a round disk approximately 1 meter in diameter and 10 cm thick, with the assembled MC spacecraft visualized as stacked pMC units. One pMC would carry the primary and secondary mirrors, a second the science package, optical communications package and star tracker sensors, and so on. In-space assembly need not be rushed. The paper mentions a time period of several months as needed to complete the operation.

The 28-year cruise phase ends in the region of 550 AU, with two of the five or six MC spacecraft now maneuvering to track the primary optical axis of the exoplanet host star, which is the line connecting the center of the star to the center of the Sun. The host star is thus a key navigational resource which will be used to determine the precise position of the exoplanet under study. Interestingly, motion in the image plane has to be accounted for – this is due to the effect of the wobble of the Sun caused by gas giants in our Solar System. Such wobbles are hugely helpful for those using radial velocity methods to study planets around other stars. Here they become a complicating factor in extracting the data the mission will need to construct its exoplanet imagery.

The disposition of the spacecraft at 550 AU is likewise interesting. All of the MC spacecraft are, as the acronym makes clear, capable of conducting the mission. It now becomes necessary to subtract the Sun’s coronal light from the incoming data, which is accomplished by having one of the spacecraft follow an inertial path down the center of the spiral trajectory the other craft will follow (the other craft all move in a noninertial frame to make it possible to acquire the SGL photons). Having one craft on an inertial path means it sees no exoplanet photons, and thus its coronal image can be subtracted from the data gathered by the other four craft. The inertial path spacecraft also acts as a local reference frame that can be used for navigation.

Image: A meter-class telescope with a coronagraph to block solar light, placed in the strong interference region of the solar gravitational lens (SGL), is capable of imaging an exoplanet at a distance of up to 30 parsecs with a few 10 km-scale resolution on its surface. The picture shows results of a simulation of the effects of the SGL on an Earth-like exoplanet image. Left: original RGB color image with (1024×1024) pixels; center: image blurred by the SGL, sampled at an SNR of ~103 per color channel, or overall SNR of 3×103; right: the result of image deconvolution. Credit: Turyshev et al., “Direct Multipixel Imaging and Spectroscopy of an Exoplanet with a Solar Gravity Lens Mission,” Final Report NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Phase II.

The spacecraft are moving at more than 20 AU per year and have up to five years between 550 and 650 AU to lock onto the primary optical axis of the exoplanet host star. As the craft reach 650 AU, the optical axis of the host star becomes what the authors call a ‘navigational steppingstone’ toward locating the image of the exoplanet, which once acquired begins a science phase lasting in the area of ten years.

The details of image acquisition are themselves fascinating and as you would imagine, complex – I send you to the paper for more. My focus today is the novelty of the architecture here. If we can assemble a mission capable spacecraft (and indeed a small fleet of these) out of the smaller pMC units, we reduce the size of sail needed for the perihelion acceleration phase and make it possible to achieve payload sizes for missions far beyond the heliosphere that would not otherwise be possible. We build this out of a known base; in-space assembly and autonomous docking have been demonstrated, and technologies for assembly operations continue to be refined. NASA’s On-Orbit Autonomous Assembly from Nanosatellites and CubeSat Proximity Operations Demonstration mission are examples of this ongoing research.

What a long and winding path it is to extend the human presence via robotic probe ever further from our planet. This paper examines technologies needed to advance this movement, and again I point to the ongoing Interstellar Probe study at JHU/APL as another rich source for current and projected thinking about the needed technologies. In the case of the SGL mission, what is being proposed could have a major impact on the search for life elsewhere in the universe. Imagine a green and blue exoplanet seen with weather patterns, oceans, continents and rich spectral data on its atmosphere.

But I come back to that mission architecture and the idea of self-assembly. As the authors write:

We realize that this architecture fundamentally changes how space exploration could be conducted. One can imagine small- to medium-scale spacecraft on fast-traveling scouting missions on quick cadence cycles that are then followed by flagship-class space vehicles. The proposed mission architecture leverages a global technology base driven by miniaturization and integration, and other technologies that are coming into fruition, including composite materials based on hierarchical structures, edge-computing platforms, small-scale power generation, and storage. These advances have had an effect on the small spacecraft industry with the development of a worldwide CubeSat and nanosat ecosystem that have continually demonstrated increasing functionality in missions…

We’ll continue to track robotic self-assembly and autonomy issues with great interest. I’m convinced the concept opens up mission possibilities we’ve yet to imagine.

The paper is Helvajian, “Mission Architecture to Reach and Operate at the Focal Region of the Solar Gravitational Lens,” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets. Published online 1 February 2023 (full text). For earlier Centauri Dreams articles on the SGL mission, see JPL Work on a Gravitational Lensing Mission, Good News for a Gravitational Focus Mission and
Solar Gravitational Lens: Sailcraft and In-Flight Assembly.


Sunvoyager’s Pedigree: On the Growth of Interstellar Ideas

Kelvin Long’s new paper on the mission concept called Sunvoyager would deploy inertial confinement fusion, described in the last post, to drive a spacecraft to 1000 AU in less than four years. The number pulsates with possibilities: A craft like this would move at 325 AU per year, or roughly 1500 kilometers per second, ninety times the velocity of Voyager 1. This kind of capability, which Long thinks we may achieve late in this century, would open up all kinds of fast science missions to the outer planets, the Kuiper Belt, and even the inner Oort Cloud. And the conquest of inertial confinement methods would open the prospect for later, still faster missions to nearby stars.

Sunvoyager draws on the heritage of the Daedalus starship, that daring design conceived by British Interplanetary Society members in the 1970s, but as we saw last time, inertial confinement fusion (ICF) was likewise examined in a concept called Vista, and one of the pleasures of this kind of research for a scholarly sort like me is digging out the history of ideas, which in the Long paper I can trace through work in JBIS and the IEEE in the 1980s and 90s, where ICF was considered.

Vista itself appeared in the literature in the 1980s, drawing on this earlier and ongoing work, its conical shape a response to the potentially damaging neutron and x-ray flux that ICF produced. Long emulates its form factor in the Sunvoyager design. I should also mention a NASA concept called Discovery II that I hadn’t encountered until now, a spacecraft designed for a mission to the gas giants using a magnetic fusion engine. Both this and an early ICF design by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s Rod Hyde and colleagues in the 1970s would use an engine with a mass of 300 tons, a figure which Long selected for the calculations in his Sunvoyager paper as he validated the HeliosX code using Vista as the template: “The current level of accuracy will suffice for making predictions for the expected design performance of the Sunvoyager probe.”

So what do we get as we downselect to achieve the Sunvoyager design? The image below shows the concept.

Image: This is Figure 8 in the paper. Caption: Concept design layout of Sunvoyager spacecraft configuration. Credit: Kelvin Long.

Notice the radiators, a critical part of the design, for we need to find a way to reduce waste heat. Long notes that for Vista, the radiation interaction with the structure was about 3 percent – in other words, the vehicle intercepts about that amount of the neutron and x-ray flux from the fusion reactions. He assumes a higher figure for Sunvoyager, although adding that using a mixture of deuterium and helium-3 as the fuel (Vista used a capsule of deuterium and tritium) would reduce these effects. The design also includes an annular radiation shield within the engine structure.

Long assumes the use of X-band frequencies for communications, transmitting at 8.4 GHz with a power output of 100 W, the signals to be received via the Deep Space Network’s 70-meter dishes. It’s interesting that he does not push for laser methods here, wisely so, I think, given the pointing problems we’ve discussed recently at deep space distances. Pushing data back to Earth from 1000 AU is daunting enough:

The expected data rate at 1000 AU will be 1 kBits?s. Backup medium- and low-gain antennas are also likely to be required. Note that radio signals from a distance of 1000 AU will take around 138 h to reach Earth receiving antennas, and so significant data latency should be expected. The high-gain antenna will be mounted on a rotatable fixing (rather than body mounted) and on a set of rigid extension poles so that it can always be pointed toward Earth, which avoids the need of having to rotate the entire spacecraft such as was performed for the Voyager 2 and New Horizons missions.

The Sunvoyager interstellar precursor probe would be assembled in Earth orbit following multiple launch missions. The author likens building the craft to the construction of the International Space Station, noting on the order of 10 launch vehicles may be needed to get all the parts into the assembly orbit. Booster rockets, perhaps nuclear thermal, would be used to move the vehicle away from Earth at 17 kilometers per second (which happens to be Voyager 1 speed). This reaches twice the mean Earth-Moon distance in a day or so, at which point the fusion engine can be ignited. And here we go with ICF fusion on our way to the outer Solar System:

A capsule is accelerated into the target chamber where the bank of laser beam lines can target it within the open reaction chamber to the point of thermonuclear ignition. A set of externally placed laser-focusing mirrors may be required to ensure a symmetric implosion. The plasma from the detonation will expand into the hemispherical target chamber, with the charge particles then directed by large magnetic fields internal to the chamber. These are then ejected for thrust generation while the next capsule is loaded onto the target ignition point. This occurs 10 times per second, although the hydrodynamic and nuclear phases of the ignition take place on microsecond and nanosecond time scales, respectively, so that in between each ignition there will still be around 10?5 s of time for the loading of the next capsule while the plasma from the previous one is being ejected.

The numbers on the ICF fusion for Sunvoyager are, shall we say, mind-boggling. Consider this: The mission needs 200 million fuel capsules, or 50 million per tank. This is, as the author comments, “no small undertaking,” a thought I can only echo. If we’re looking at constructing and flying a mission like this in, say, 50 years time, we may be able to assume advances in robotic automation and additive manufacturing, but we also have the problem of acquiring the needed fuel. You may recall that the Daedalus starship design was built around the notion of mining the gas giants for helium-3. That, in turn, assumes a Solar System infrastructure sufficient to make such mining feasible.

Image: This is the paper’s Figure 12. Caption: Concept design configuration (side view) of Sunvoyager spacecraft. Credit: Kelvin Long.

I like the sheer daring of concepts like Daedalus and Sunvoyager. Remember that when those frisky BIS engineers put Daedalus together, they worked at a time when it was largely considered impossible to reach another star by any means. Daedalus seemed impossible to build (it still does), but it violated no laws of physics and became a vast engineering problem. The point wasn’t that building it would bankrupt the planet. The point was that if we did decide to build it, nothing in physics would prevent it from working. Assuming, of course, that we did conquer ICF fusion for propulsion.

In other words (and Robert Forward would hammer this home again and again in talks and in papers), interstellar flight was not science fictional dreaming but a matter of reaching the appropriate level of engineering, which one day we might very well do. A mission design like Sunvoyager reminds us that we can stretch our thinking based on what we have today to make wise decisions about how and where we invest in the needed technologies. We gain scientific knowledge in doing this and we also rough out the roadmap that points to still further missions that one day reach another star.

Image: The extraordinary Robert Forward, wearing one of the trademark vests created by his wife Martha. Forward chose this photograph to appear on his own Web site.

So I think Kelvin Long is spot on in his assessment of what he does here:

Additional studies will be required to further develop the design configuration and specification for the Sunvoyager mission proposal so that it can be matured to the point of a credible mission in the coming decades to include a subsystem-level definition. However, the calculations presented in this paper show promise for what may be possible in the future provided that investments into ICF ignition physics are continued and then the applications of this technology pursued with vigor.

I think Bob Forward would have liked this paper. And because I haven’t quoted his famous lines (from JBIS in 1996) in their entirety since 2005, let me do so here. He’s looking into a future when we go from interstellar precursors into actual interstellar crossings to places like Proxima Centauri, and he sees the process:

Travel to the stars will be difficult and expensive. It will take decades of time, gigawatts of power, kilograms of energy and trillions of dollars. Recently, however, some new technologies have emerged and are under development for other purposes, that show promise of providing propulsion systems that will make interstellar travel feasible within the forseeable future — if the world community decides to direct its energies and resources in that direction. Make no mistake — interstellar travel will always be difficult and expensive, but it can no longer be considered impossible.

The paper is Long, “Sunvoyager: Interstellar Precursor Probe Mission Concept Driven by Inertial Confinement Fusion Propulsion,” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets 2 January 2023 (full text).


SunVoyager: A Fast Fusion Mission Beyond the Heliosphere

1000 AU makes a fine target for our next push past the heliosphere, keeping in mind that good science is to be had all along the way. Thus if we took 100 years to get to 1000 AU (and at Voyager speeds it would be a lot longer than that), we would still be gathering solid data about the Kuiper Belt, the heliosphere itself and its interactions with the interstellar medium, the nature and disposition of interstellar dust, and the plasma environment any future interstellar craft will have to pass through.

We don’t have to get there fast to produce useful results, in other words, but it sure would help. The Thousand Astronomical Unit mission (TAU) was examined by NASA in the 1980s using nuclear electric propulsion technologies, one specification being the need to reach the target distance within 50 years. It’s interesting to me – and Kelvin Long discusses this in a new paper we’ll examine in the next few posts – that a large part of the science case for TAU was stellar parallax, for classical measurements at Earth – Sun distance allow only coarse-grained estimates of stellar distances. We’d like to increase the baseline of our space-based interferometer, and the way to do that is to reach beyond the system.

Gravitational lensing wasn’t on the mind of mission planners in the 1980s, although the concept was being examined as a long-range possibility by von Eshleman at Stanford as early as 1979, with intense follow-up scrutiny by Italian space scientist Claudio Maccone. Today reaching the 550 AU distance where gravitational lensing effects enable observation of exoplanets is much on the mind of Slava Turyshev and team at JPL, whose refined mission concept is aimed at the upcoming heliophysics decadal. We’ve examined this Solar Gravity Lens mission on various occasions in these pages, as well as JHU/APL’s Interstellar Probe design, whose long-range goal is 1000 AU.

What Kelvin Long does in his recently published paper is to examine a deep space probe he calls SunVoyager. Long (Interstellar Research Centre, Stellar Engines Ltd) sees three primary science objectives here, the first being observing the nearest stars and their planets both through transit methods as well as gravitational lensing. A second objective along the way is the flyby of a dwarf planet that has yet to be visited, while the third is possible imaging of interstellar objects like 2I/Borisov and ‘Oumuamua. Driven by fusion, the craft would reach 1000 AU in a scant four years.

Image: The Interstellar Research Centre’s Kelvin Long, here pictured on a visit to JPL.

This is a multi-layered mission, and I note that the concept involves the use of small ‘sub-probes’, evidently deployed along the route of flight, to make flybys of a dwarf planet or an interstellar object of interest, each of these (and ten are included in the mission) to have a maximum mass of 0.5 tons. That’s a lot of mass, about which more in a moment. Secondary objectives involve measurements of the charged particle and dust composition of the interstellar medium, astrometry (presumably in the service of exoplanet study) and, interestingly, SETI, here involving detection of possible power and propulsion emission signatures as opposed to beacons in deep space.

Bur back to those sub-probes, which by now may have rung a bell. Active for decades in the British Interplanetary Society, Long has edited its long-lived journal and is deeply conversant with the Daedalus starship concept that grew out of BIS work in the 1970s. Daedalus was a fusion starship with an initial mass of 54,000 tons using inertial confinement methods to ignite a deuterium/helium-3 mixture. SunVoyager comes nowhere near that size – nor would it travel more than a fraction of the Daedalus journey to Barnard’s Star, but you can see that Long is purposely exploring long-range prospects that may be enabled by our eventual solution of fusion propulsion.

Those fortunate enough to travel in Iceland will know SunVoyager as the name of a sculpture by the sea in central Reykjavik, one that Long describes as “an ode to the sun or a dream boat that represents the promise of undiscovered territory and a dream of hope, progress, and freedom.” As with Daedalus, the concept relies on breakthroughs in inertial confinement fusion (ICF), in this case via optical laser beam, and in an illustration of serendipity, the paper comes out close to the time when the US National Ignition Facility announced its breakthrough in achieving energy breakeven, meaning the experiment produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.

Image: The Sun Voyager (Sólfarið) is a large steel sculpture of a ship, located on the road Sæbraut, by the seaside of central Reykjavík. The work of sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason, SunVoyager is one of the most visited sights in Iceland’s capitol, where people gather daily to gaze at the sun reflecting in the stainless steel of this remarkable monument. Credit: Guide to Iceland.

Long’s work involves a numerical design tool called HeliosX, described as “a system integrated programming design tool written in Fortran 95 for the purpose of calculating spacecraft mission profile and propulsion performance for inertial confinement fusion driven designs.” As a counterpart to this paper, Long writes up the background and use of HeliosX in the current issue of Acta Astronautica (citation below). The SunVoyager paper contemplates a mission launched decades from now. Long acknowledges the magnitude of the problems that remain to be solved with ICF for this to happen, notwithstanding the encouraging news from the NIF.

…a capsule of fusion fuel, typically hydrogen and helium isotopes, must be compressed to high density and high temperature, and this must be sustained for a minimum period of time. One of the methods to achieve this is by using high-powered laser beams to fire at a capsule in a spherical arrangement of individual beam lines. The lasers will mass ablate the surface of the capsule and through momentum exchange will cause the material to travel inward under spherical compression. This must be done smoothly however, and any significant perturbations from spherical symmetry during the implosion will lead to hydrodynamic instabilities that can reduce the implosion efficiency. Indeed, the interaction of a laser beam with a high-temperature plasma involves much complex physics, and this is the reason why programs on Earth have found it so difficult.

Working through our evolving deep space mission designs is a fascinating exercise, which is why I took the time years ago to painstakingly copy the original Daedalus report from an academic library – I kept the Xerox machine humming in those days. Daedalus, a two-stage vehicle, used electron beams fired at capsules of deuterium and helium-3, the resulting plasma directed by powerful magnetic fields. Long invokes as well NASA’s studies of a concept called Vista, which he has also written about in his book Deep Space Propulsion: A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight (Springer, 2011). This was a design proposal for taking a 100-ton payload to Mars in 50 days using a deuterium and tritium fuel capsule ignited by laser. Long explains:

The capsule design was to utilize an indirect drive method, and so a smoother implosion symmetry may give rise to a higher burn fraction of 0.476. This is where the capsule is contained within a radiation cavity called a Hohlraum and where the lasers heat up the internal surface layer of the cavity to create a radiation bath around the capsule; as opposed to direct laser impingement onto the capsule surface and the associated mass ablation through the direct drive approach.

Image: Few images of the Vista design are available. I’ve swiped this one from a presentation made by C. D. Orth to the NASA Advanced Propulsion Workshop in Fusion Propulsion in 2000, though it dates back all the way to the 1980s. Credit: NASA.

SunVoyager would, the author comments, likely use a similar capsule design, although the paper doesn’t address the details. Vista feeds into Long’s thinking in another way: You’ll notice the unusual shape of the spacecraft in the image above. Coming out of work by Rod Hyde and others in the 1980s, Vista was designed to deal with early ICF propulsion concepts that produced a large neutron and x-ray radiation flux, sufficient to prove lethal to the crew. The conical design was thus an attempt to minimize the exposure of the structure to this flux, with a useful gain in jet efficiency of the thrust chamber. SunVoyager is designed around a similar conical propulsion system. The author proceeds to make predictions for the performance of SunVoyager by using calculations growing out of the Vista design as modeled in the HeliosX software.

In the tradition of Daedalus and Vista, SunVoyager explores ICF propulsion in the context of current understanding of fusion. I want to talk more about this concept next week, noting for now that a fast mission to 1000 AU –SunVoyager would reach that distance in less than four years – would take us into an entirely new level of outer system exploration, although the timing of such a mission remains hostage to our ability to conquer ICF and generate the needed energies to actualize it in comparatively small spacecraft systems. This doesn’t even get into the matter of producing the required fuel, another issue that will parallel those 1970s Daedalus papers and push us to the limits of the possible.

The paper is Long, “Sunvoyager: Interstellar Precursor Probe Mission Concept Driven by Inertial Confinement Fusion Propulsion,” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets 2 January 2023 (full text). The paper on HeliosX is Long, “Development of the HeliosX Mission Analysis Code for Advanced ICF Space Propulsion,” Acta Astronautica, Vol. 202, Jan. 2023, pp. 157–173 (abstract). See also Hyde, “Laser-fusion rocket for interplanetary propulsion,” International Astronautical Federation conference, Budapest, Hungary, 10 Oct 1983 (abstract).


Interstellar Communications: The Pointing Problem

Some topics just take off on their own. Several days ago, I began working on a piece about Europa Clipper’s latest news, the installation of the reaction wheels that orient the craft for data return to Earth and science studies at target. But data return is one thing for spacecraft working at radio frequencies within the Solar System, and another for much more distant craft, perhaps in interstellar space, using laser methods.

So spacecraft orientation in the Solar System triggered my recent interest in the problem of laser pointing beyond the heliosphere, which is acute for long-haul spacecraft like Interstellar Probe, a concept we’ve recently examined. Because unlike radio methods, laser communications involve an extremely tight, focused beam. Get far enough from the Sun and that beam will have to be exquisitely precise in its placement.

So let’s take a quick look at Europa Clipper’s methods for orienting itself in space, and Voyager’s as well, and then move on to how Interstellar Probe intends to get its signal back to Earth. NASA has just announced that engineers have installed four reaction wheels aboard Europa Clipper, to provide orientation for the transmission of data and the operation of its instruments as it studies the Jovian moon. The wheels are slow to have their effect, with 90 minutes being needed to rotate Europa Clipper 180 degrees, but they run usefully on electrical power from the spacecraft’s solar arrays rather than relying on fuel that would have to be carried for its thrusters.

Image: All four of the reaction wheels installed onto NASA’s Europa Clipper are visible in this photo, which was shot from underneath the main body of the spacecraft while it is being assembled at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The spacecraft is set to launch in October 2024 and will head toward Jupiter’s moon Europa, where it will collect science observations while flying by the icy moon dozens of times. During its journey through deep space and its flybys of Europa, the spacecraft’s reaction wheels rotate the orbiter so its antennas can communicate with Earth and so its science instruments, including cameras, can stay oriented. Two feet wide and made of steel, aluminum, and titanium, the wheels spin rapidly to create a force that causes the orbiter to rotate in the opposite direction. The wheels will run on electricity provided by the spacecraft’s vast solar arrays. NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Interstellar Pointing Accuracy

How do reaction wheels fit into missions much further out? In our recent look at Interstellar Probe, the NASA design study out of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL), I mentioned problems with pointing accuracy when it came to a hypothetical laser communications system aboard. The team working on Interstellar Probe (IP) chose not to go with a laser comms system, opting instead for X-band communications (or conceivably Ka-band), because as principal investigator Ralph McNutt told me, several problems arose when trying to point such a tight communications signal at Earth from the ultimate mission target: 1000 AU.

IP, remember, has 1000 AU as a design specification – the idea is to produce a craft that, upon reaching this distance, would still be able to transmit its findings back to Earth, but whether this distance can be achieved within the cited 50 year time frame is another matter. Wherever the distance of the craft is 50 years after launch, though, the design calls for it to be able to communicate with Earth. We can still talk to the Voyagers, but that brings up the issue of the best method to make the connection.

Both Voyagers are a long way from home, but nothing like 1000 AU, with Voyager 1 at 158 AU and Voyager 2 at 131 AU from the Sun. The craft are equipped with six sets of thrusters to control pitch, yaw and roll, allowing the orientation with Earth needed for radio communications (Voyager transmits at either 2.3 GHz or 8.4 GHz). But what about those reaction wheels we just looked at with Europa Clipper, which allow three-axis attitude control without using attitude control thrusters or other external sources of torque? Here we run into a technology with a history that is problematic for going beyond the Solar System or, indeed, extending a mission closer to home. Just how problematic we learned all too clearly with the Kepler mission.

For reaction wheels are all too prone to failure over time. The hugely successful exoplanet observatory found itself derailed in May of 2013, when the second of its reaction wheels failed (the first had given out the previous July). Operating something like a gyroscope, the reaction wheels were designed to spin up in one direction so as to move the spacecraft in the other, thus allowing data return from the rich star field Kepler was studying. Kepler had four reaction wheels and needed three to function properly. With only two wheels operational, the spacecraft quickly went into safe mode.

The problem, likely the result of something as mundane as issues with ball bearings, is hardly confined to a single mission, and although the Kepler team was able to mount a successful K2 extended mission, the larger question extends to any long-term mission relying on this technology. Reaction wheels were a problem on NASA’s Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer in 2001 and complicated the Japanese Hayabusa mission in 2004 and 2005. The DAWN mission had two reaction wheel failures during the course of its operations. A NASA mission called Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics (TIMED) suffered a reaction wheel failure in 2007.

So by the time Kepler was close to launch, the question of reaction wheels was much in the air. We should keep in mind that the reaction wheel failures occurred despite extensive precautions taken by the mission controllers, who sent the Kepler reaction wheels back to the manufacturer, Ithaco Space Systems in Ithaca, NY, removing them from the spacecraft in 2008 and replacing the ball bearings before the 2009 launch. It became clear with the reaction wheel failures Kepler sustained that the technology was vulnerable, although it did function up to the end of the spacecraft’s primary mission.

Based on experience, the technology shows a shelf-life on the order of a decade, which is why the Interstellar Probe team had to reject the reaction wheel concept for laser pointing. Remember that IP is envisioned as a fully operational spacecraft for 50 years, able to return data from well beyond the heliosphere at that time. As McNutt pointed out in an email, the usable laser beam size at the Earth, based on a 2003 NIAC study, was approximately Earth’s own diameter. Let me quote Dr. McNutt on this:

“With a downlink per week from 1000 au that lasted ~8 hours for that concept, one would have to point the beam ahead, so that the Earth would be “under it” when the laser train of light signals arrived. It also meant that we needed an onboard clock good to a few minutes after 50 years at worst and a good ephemeris on board to tell where to point in the first place. These start at least heading toward some of the performance of Gravity Probe B… but one needs these accuracies to hold for ~50 years.”

This gets complicated indeed. From a 2002 paper on optical and microwave communications for an interstellar explorer craft operating as far as 1000 AU (McNutt was a co-author here, working on a study that fed directly into the current Interstellar Probe design), note the possible errors that must be foreseen:

These include trajectory knowledge derived from an onboard clock and ephemerides to track the receiving station and downlink platform so that the spacecraft-to-earth line-of-sight orientation is known sufficiently accurately within the total spacecraft pointing error budget. In order to maintain the transmitter boresight accurately a high-precision star tracker is also needed, which must be aligned very accurately with respect to the laser antenna. Alignment errors between the transmitter and star tracker can be minimized by using the same optical system for the star tracker and laser transmitter and compensating any residual dynamic errors in real-time. This must be accomplished subject to various spacecraft perturbations, such as propellant bursts, or solar radiation induced moments. To also avoid significant beam loss when coupling into the receiver near Earth, the beam shape should be controlled, i.e., be a diffraction-limited single mode beam as well.

X-band radio communications, as considered by the Interstellar Probe team at JHU/APL, thus emerges as the better option considering that a mission coming out of the upcoming heliophysics decadal would be launching in the 2030s, with the recent analysis from Pontus Brandt et al. noting that “Although, optical laser communication offers high data rates, it imposes an unrealistic pointing requirement on the mission architectures under study.”

What to do? From the Brandt et al. paper (my additions are in italics):

The conclusion following significant analysis was that the implementation with the largest practical monolithic HGA [High Gain Antenna] with the corresponding lower transmission frequency to deal with a larger pointing dead-band. This corresponds to a 5-m diameter HGA at X-band for Options 1 and 2 and a smaller, 2-m HGA at Ka-band for Option 3 [here the options refer to the mass of the spacecraft]. The corresponding guidance and control system is based upon thrusters and must provide the required HGA pointing as commensurate with spacecraft science needs.

I checked in with Ralph McNutt again while working on this post on the question of how IP would orient the spacecraft. He confirmed that attitude control thrusters would be the method, and went on to note that, at flight-tested status (TRL 9), control authority of ~0.25° with thrusters is possible; we also have much experience with the technology.

Dr. McNutt passed our discussion along to JHU/APL’s Gabe Rogers, who has extensive experience on the matter not only with the Interstellar Probe concept but through flight experience with NASA’s Van Allen Probes. Dr. Rogers likened IP’s attitude control to Pioneer 10 and 11 more than Voyager, saying that IP would be primarily spin-stabilized rather than, like Voyager, 3-axis stabilized. The Pioneers carried six hydrazine thrusters, two of which maintained the spin rate, while two controlled forward thrust and two controlled attitude.

As to reaction wheels, they turn out to be both a lifetime and a power issue, ruling them out. Both scientists added that surviving launch vibration and acceleration is a factor, as are changes in moments of inertia as fuel is burned for guidance and control.

Says McNutt:

“One way of dealing with this (looks good on paper) is actively moving masses around to compensate for pointing issues – but then one has to worry about the lifetime of mechanisms. Galileo actually had motors to control the boom deployments of its two RTGs to control the moments of inertia of the spinning section (a different “issue”). Of course, Galileo is also the poster child of what can happen if deployment mechanisms fail on a $1B + spacecraft – in that case the HGA deployment. The LECP [Low-Energy Charged Particle] stepper motors on Voyager have gone through over 7 million steps – but that was not the “plan” or “design.”

What counts is the result. Will engineers fifty years after launch be able to download meaningful scientific data from a craft like Interstellar Probe? The question frames the entire discussion as we move toward interstellar space. Rogers adds:

“We can always mitigate risk, but we have to think very carefully about the best, most reliable way to recover the science data requested. Sometimes simpler is better. The key is to get the most bits down to the ground. I would rather have a 1000 bit per second data rate that would work 8 hours per day than a 3000 bps data rate that worked 2 hours per day. X-band is also less susceptible to rain in Spain falling mainly on the plains.”

Indeed, and with RF as opposed to laser, we have less concern about where the clouds are. So the current thinking about using X-band resolves issues beyond pointing accuracy. Bear in mind that we are talking about a spacecraft deliberately crafted to be operational for 50 years or more, a seemingly daunting challenge in what McNutt calls ‘longevity by design,’ but every indication is that longevity can be achieved, as the Voyagers remind us despite their not being built for the task.

And while I had never heard of the Oxford Electric Bell before this correspondence, I’ve learned in these discussions that it was set up in 1840 and has evidently run ever since its construction. So we’ve been producing long-lived technologies for some time. Now we incorporate them intentionally into our spacecraft to move beyond the heliosphere.

As to Europa Clipper’s reaction wheels, they fit the timeframe of the mission, considering we have a decade to work with, from 2024 launch to end of operations (presumed in 2034). But aware of the previous problems posed by reaction wheels, Europa Clipper’s engineers have installed four rather than three to provide a backup, and we can hope that knowledge hard-gained through missions like Kepler will afford an even longer lifetime for the steel, aluminum, and titanium wheels aboard Clipper.

Image: Engineers install 2-foot-wide reaction wheels onto the main body of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The orbiter is in its assembly, test, and launch operations phase in preparation for a 2024 launch. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Many thanks to Ralph McNutt and Gabe Rogers for their help with this article. The study on optical communications I referenced above is Boone et al., “Optical and microwave communications system conceptual design for a realistic interstellar explorer,” Proc. SPIE 4821, Free-Space Laser Communication and Laser Imaging II, (9 December 2002). Abstract. The Brandt paper on IP is “Interstellar Probe: Humanity’s exploration of the Galaxy Begins,” Acta Astronautica Volume 199 (October 2022), pages 364-373 (full text). For broader context, be aware as well of Rogers et al., “Dynamic Challenges of Long Flexible Booms on a Spinning Outer Heliospheric Spacecraft,” published in 2021 IEEE Aerospace Conference (full text).