Lockheed Martin unveils Jupiter cargo ship for ISS, exploration

CBS News

Taking space station resupply to new heights, Lockheed Martin unveiled plans for an innovative modular spacecraft Thursday that could be used to deliver cargo to the lab complex or serve as a small habitat for NASA astronauts making deep space voyages aboard the agency's Orion capsules.

Two companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., currently hold commercial contracts with NASA valued at $3.5 billion to deliver critical supplies and equipment to the lab complex through 2016. In June, NASA plans to award one or more new contracts for resupply flights through 2020 with options extending to 2024.

SpaceX, which holds another NASA contract to develop a piloted version of its Dragon cargo ship, is expected to be in the hunt for the second round of cargo resupply contracts, along with Orbital Sciences, Boeing and Sierra Nevada, which is promoting its winged Dream Chaser spaceplane.

Lockheed Martin's proposed Jupiter space tug and "Exoliner" cargo carrier are captured by the International Space Station's robot arm in this computer graphic. Lockheed Martin has entered the design in a NASA competition for downstream station resupply flights. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

During a webcast briefing Thursday from Union Station in Washington, Lockheed Martin officials unveiled their proposed "solution" in the resupply competition, a mostly reusable spacecraft named Jupiter.

"We've named this system Jupiter after one of the trains that came together at Promontory Summit," said Jim Crocker, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin's Space Systems International. "This public-private partnership, that basically established the transcontinental railroad, changed everything. It changed the economics of how the United States competed in the world, and we believe the system we're unveiling tonight will do the same."

In a radical departure from current space station resupply architectures, the Jupiter spacecraft would be made up of a power, data and propulsion module based on the company's flight-proven design for interplanetary spacecraft like NASA's Maven Mars orbiter and its Jupiter-bound Juno spacecraft.

The solar-powered bus and a refuelable mission support module would feature a robot arm provided by MacDonald Dettwiler Associates, or MDA, the same Canadian company that built the arms used by NASA's space shuttles and the International Space Station. Frequently referring to the transcontinental railroad, Crocker described the Jupiter spacecraft as a locomotive and the robot arm as the coupling mechanism.

For space station resupply missions, up to 3,300 pounds of unpressurized cargo could be carried with up to 11,000 pounds in a roomy pressurized module modeled after the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle, built by Thales Alenia Space. The pressurized module could be used to carry large components, such as full-size lab racks, as well as spare parts, research equipment, food, clothing and other supplies.

The Jupiter spacecraft and "Exoliner" cargo carrier would be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. After separating from the rocket's Centaur second stage, the cargo ship would rendezvous with the space station and rely on the lab's robot arm to pull it in for berthing.

The module then would be unloaded by the lab crew and repacked with trash and no-longer-needed equipment. The Jupiter spacecraft then would be unberthed by the station's robot arm, allowing the cargo ship to either remain in space to deploy secondary payloads or rendezvous with another cargo module launched atop another Atlas 5.

After the initial mission, the Jupiter "locomotive" would remain in orbit and await delivery of another cargo module by an Atlas 5. Using the craft's robot arm, the vehicle would autonomously snare the new cargo carrier and attach the trash-filled module to the Atlas 5 second stage to burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

The expensive part of the spacecraft -- the power, propulsion and data management section -- would remain in orbit between delivery missions, reducing the cost of resupply, company officials said.

(Credit: Lockheed Martin)

In a break with past proposals, Lockheed Martin is designing the spacecraft from the ground up with deep space exploration in mind.

"Although our priority is going to be servicing the International Space Station and providing the ability to carry commercial payloads and deploy small satellites, we're also designing this system from the beginning go be able to do deep space missions," said Josh Hopkins, a Lockheed Martin "space exploration architect."

"And that means that NASA will be able to start doing some early human spaceflights beyond low-Earth orbit without a huge investment. Instead, what they'll be able to do is buy more copies of the same design."

He said multiple studies in recent years have called for flights to a small habitat in the vicinity of the moon to perfect the technology and procedures needed for eventual flights to deep space targets ranging from nearby asteroids to the ultimate destination, Mars.

Operating near the moon, astronauts would be able to test and demonstrate the reliability of advanced life support systems, develop techniques for protecting crews from space radiation and procedures for long-term operations beyond low-Earth orbit.

"Cislunar space is a pretty good place to practice that," Hopkins said. "It's about a thousand times farther from the Earth than the International Space Station is, but it's still close enough that you can get astronauts home in a week or so in an emergency. So it's a good place to learn those key skills that will enable these longer term missions in the future."

He said the ATV-heritage cargo modules would be designed to serve as habitats that could be attached to NASA's Orion exploration capsule, instantly tripling the volume available to its crew.

"Orion can get the astronauts to deep space, that's what it's designed to do," Hopkins said. "But if you want to extend that mission from just a few weeks up to a few months, you need more room, you need this habitat."

He said NASA's Space Launch System super rocket, scheduled for an initial test flight in 2018, will be able to carry an Orion capsule and a Jupiter spacecraft and habitat without any significant modification.

If the Jupiter project moves forward, "NASA could choose to launch one of these on each Orion mission if it chose to do so, for more supplies and more living space," Hopkins said. "It's also designed to be compatible as a primary payload on existing and planned commercial heavy launch vehicles."

"We want the ability to offer commercial logistics services to NASA and the international partners not just to ISS, but to lunar orbit and beyond," he said. "This gives us the capability to exercise that business model."