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NASA Glenn officials excited over role in future space missions

NASA Glenn Research Center hangar. (NASA/Released)

President Trump’s proposed record $4.175 trillion federal budget unveiled Monday contains a noticeable surge in funding for Ohio’s NASA Glenn Research Center, which will be instrumental in returning to the moon and exploring Mars.

The new funding is largely intended for development and testing propulsion technology that is necessary for deep space missions.

The current federal budget funding for NASA Glenn is at $697 million. The proposed budget is expected to grow to as much as 22 percent to about $850 million with even more increases projected in 2020.

“As far as a specific role, it’s the largest role that we have here in the past 10 years from that standpoint in our overall budget,” said Larry Sivic, chief financial officer for the center.

Back in the 1990s, the budget was over a billion dollars when the center was doing work on projects such as the International Space Station.

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NASA is working on building the Gateway in partnership with other space agencies. It would function as an outpost that orbits the moon allowing astronauts to travel back and forth between the lunar surface. Astronauts are expected to return to the moon in 2028 — nearly 60 years since the first moon landings. Exploration on Mars is projected to take place in the 2030s.

“The real policy is go farther in space,” said Bryan Smith, director of NASA Glenn Space Flight Systems.

For many years, astronauts have traveled about 200 miles above the Earth’s surface. On average, the moon is 238,855 miles away.

The center is also aiding in NASA’s rocket space launch system in the Orion spacecraft. That rocket will travel 23,618 mph.

At Glenn, the center’s 27 vacuum facility chambers — which date back to the 1960s — will be used to test solar electric compulsion devices necessary for the long space missions with Gateway. In the chambers, nitrogen is used to create space-like conditions, Smith said.

Models of the engines, or thrusters, will be tested in the coming weeks. The Orion crew capsule will be tested in the world’s largest thermal chamber in Sandusky in July. It will be flown to Ohio from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“We’re so excited to be a part of this. Folks have worked in this area, literally, for decades. … We’re beyond excited,” said David Jacobson, chief of the electric propulsions systems branch at Glenn.

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The engine in the graphite-lined chamber uses xenon as a fuel and ions as a gas. Ions separate and are pulled out at high rate through a grid or an electric field.

“Those ions fly out the other side and that’s what causes the propulsion. Much like a large rocket that you think of smoke and fire and lifting up something the size of a building,” Smith said. “The thrust that it generates … it’s very little.”

However, it allows efficiency in space travel. A lot of force is not necessary outside the gravitational pull of the earth’s atmosphere.

NASA Glenn is also working on a kilopower nuclear reactor energy source that could provide power for living and exploring the surface of the moon and eventually Mars as missions lasting years in space take place. There are lunar labs that are simulating ground conditions to develop the next set of rover tires and engineers working to learn the best methods to extract resources from the moon’s surface.

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© 2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.