WASHINGTON -- NASA is seeking industry proposals for the design of a new rocket to take machines and humans beyond Earth orbit.
The space agency released a "broad area announcement" on Monday (June 28) soliciting concepts from the aerospace industry for a heavy-lift rocket and new propulsion technologies. Heavy-lift launchers have traditionally consisted of three rocket stages needed to boost a payload beyond Earth orbit.
NASA wants to use the new capability to reach various points in the solar system, including asteroids, the moon, Mars and Lagrange points. Lagrange points are locations in space where gravitational forces and the orbital motion of a spacecraft balance each other.
After announcing plans to cancel the Constellation moon-rocket program, NASA has been under pressure to begin work on new heavy-lift concepts. The solicitation appears to be one response, observers said.
The space agency said proposals should include concepts for new rockets and space vehicles that use different propulsion systems. While most propulsion systems have relied on traditional chemical rockets, Japan relied on ion engines to recover its Hayabusa space probe after it landed on the asteroid Itokawa, which orbits between Earth and Mars.
Ion engines use microwaves to heat xenon gas to propel a spacecraft. NASA scientist are likely interested in new, more powerful ion engine designs that could be used to power spacecraft once they've left Earth orbit.
The NASA solicitation also seeks concepts for new space components like orbital propellant depots and transfer vehicles that would be used in orbit during the construction of future solar probes. One possible scenario for reaching Mars and other points in the solar system would be to construct elements in orbit rather than trying to lift a single, large spaceship.
NASA has committed $8 million to the research project. Proposals are due by July 29.