NASA and Northrop Grumman plan to develop ‘space tugboat’

NASA and Northrop Grumman are developing a ‘space tugboat’ to ferry satellites from low-Earth orbit (LEO) to geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO).

The vehicle will use high-power solar electric propulsion technology, saving fuel and secondary booster costs.

‘In collaboration with our partners, we are working on alternatives to the typical solar array approach,’ said Jim Munger, solar electric propulsion programme manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. ‘Our concept will be scalable to 300kW and beyond and has the potential for reducing the cost and complexity of high-power requirements.’

The availability of a solar-powered vehicle would make it possible to launch spacecraft to LEO then ferry them to GEO, allowing much heavier payloads to reach GEO while still using existing launch vehicles.

The study is designed to develop mission concepts that will be using technology at NASA Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 5 or greater, which means that a basic prototype has been validated in a relevant environment (simulating space) and includes initial integration at some level with other operational systems.

The technology could eventually be used for NASA deep-space and human-exploration missions.