As NASA looks to dive deeper into the mysteries of our solar system, it has to look for newer, more economical ways to send astronauts to other planets. One plan the organisation is currently working on, involves a sort of space tugboat.
Launching rockets from Earth is extremely costly, which only gets worse when the payloads involve satellites and the like as cargo. It’s part of the reason NASA’s Apollo moon mission cost $109 billion (in 2010) to carry out. One way to make these payload launches cheaper, is by cutting down on the fuel requirements for a mission
Researchers have devised plans for an electric-powered lunar space tug, that would fly between the Earth and Moon, transporting both cargo and crew to and fro. This tug is intended to be reusable, with it being refuelled at a low-Earth orbit fuel station, and maintained by astronauts on the Moon and International Space Station (ISS).
Aerospace company Thales Alenia, which has built quite a few add-ons for the ISS in the past, as well as the Polytechnic University of Turin are working on a design concept for the vehicle. The key feature planned for the tug is its Hall Effect Thrusters, which work on electric-powered propulsion. With the tug permanently in orbit, NASA would only have to launch astronauts and payloads to a low-Earth orbit station, or even the ISS, instead of launching a rocket that needs to travel all the way to the moon, drastically cutting down fuel costs in the process.
Of course, this is just one idea, even as competitors vie to develop the next best space transport system. Just last week, Elon Musk announced a complex launch system for future SpaceX Mars missions, that could cut down on mission costs by a factor of 50,000, one which also involved a spacecraft permanently docked in space solely to ferry passengers and cargo. Others like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing are also conducting their own research and development into reusable spacecraft; healthy competition that should serve to slash launch prices significantly in the near future, much in the same way that occurred in the aviation industry.