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Mouse over the icons for more information about the Nautilus-X spacecraft

Illustration by Adrian Mann
Words by Jonathan O’Callaghan

When it comes to manned missions into deep space there are no shortage of proposals on the drawing board. People have dreamed up spacecraft with various fantastical elements, from futuristic propulsion engines to somewhat ambitious aesthetic designs, but one proposal that warrants a serious glance is Nautilus-X. It’s a spacecraft that builds largely on existing technology to make human exploration of the Solar System a realistic possibility, and at a reasonable price too.

Drawn up by NASA engineers Mark Holderman and Edward Henderson, this deep space vehicle might not be as exciting to look at as some of the other futuristic proposals being touted but its certainly one of the most promising. The full name of the vehicle is theNon-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States Exploration (Nautilus-X), while this type of spacecraft is known as a Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV).

Nautilus-X would be capable of supporting a crew of six for missions lasting from one month to two years. Although it might look like a mini space station, the whole thing is designed to be able to travel throughout the Solar System, be it near the Moon or Mars. Although not capable of descending to the surface of another world itself, it has docking ports to which landing craft can be attached.

The intention of the vehicle is that, once built, it could remain in space for many years with several different crews utilising it. For example, one crew could travel to Nautilus-X in an Orion spacecraft and then take the entire spacecraft to Mars for a mission lasting up to a year. They would then return in Nautilus-X at the conclusion of the mission and leave the spacecraft near Earth orbit, ready and waiting for another crew, while they travel back to the surface of Earth in their Orion capsule.

Such an implementation would allow multiple rotating crews to make use of the spacecraft on a variety of missions. Solar panels would provide the spacecraft with power, while on-board farms could provide astronauts with food. At the outset of a mission, though, it’s likely astronauts would need to bring some supplies with them, perhaps on a separate spacecraft like SpaceX’s Dragon.

Another key feature of Nautilus-X is, as you may have noticed in the illustration above, the centrifuge. It is well documented that prolonged exposure to space can have a debilitating effect on an astronaut’s health, in particular their muscle and bone strength. It is estimated that as much as 2 per cent of bone mass is lost for every month an astronaut is weightless in space, so providing an artificial gravity environment could be essential for long-term exploration missions. The centrifuge on Nautilus-X would provide between 51 to 69% of Earth’s gravity, allowing astronauts to recuperate bone mass they may have lost while on other parts of the spacecraft or outside on a mission. Such a centrifuge had been suggested as an additional module for the International Space Station to test the technology, but unfortunately that now seems to be on hold due to budgetary reasons.

On the subject of money, Nautilus-X carries with it a rather alluring price tag. The brains behind the project estimate it would cost around $3.7 billion (£2.3 billion), not even twice the price of NASA’s Curiosity rover, while development could be completed in just over five years. Such figures are attractive, especially for the money-conscious top dogs at NASA, so there is a chance that after further research this spacecraft may come to fruition.

But on that note, when could we expect to see any work on Nautilus-X begin? At the moment, NASA’s manned exploration funding is tied up in a number of projects, namely Orion, Commercial Crew Development (which includes funding for SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s upcoming manned vehicles), the ISS and the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket. The latter would be essential for launching and assembling the various components of this spacecraft in Earth orbit. Whether we will ever see Nautilus-X fly is up for debate, but it’s good to know that NASA has a sound proposal for a deep space exploration vehicle if it ever does decide to go down that route.


Nautilus-X: The multi-purpose NASA spacecraft that could take humans to the Moon and beyond

Take a look at this next-generation spacecraft that some NASA engineers believe will be capable of multiple trips to the Moon, Mars and other destinations.

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Mouse over the icons for more information

Illustration by Jay Wong
Words by Jonathan O’Callaghan

One of the arguments for colonising the Moon is that it contains a lot of material that may be useful not only on the Moon itself, but also back on Earth. This includes things like helium-3, an isotope of helium that some say could be used as fuel in future nuclear fusion power plants to provide a huge new source of energy.

If we are to colonise the Moon then we could do with an innovative and low cost way to regularly send this useful material back to Earth. After all, we don’t want to have to use numerous expendable rockets to continually transport cargo to and from the Moon.

So, with that in mind, some space enthusiasts have envisioned a railgun of sorts that would be able fire projectiles from the Moon to Earth. Using magnetic levitation, the structure would accelerate a payload to the necessary speed required to escape the gravity of the Moon and return to Earth, or perhaps rendezvous with a cargo spacecraft in lunar orbit for transportation to Earth. This concept was used in the 2009 movie “Moon”, with helium-3 being mined on the Moon and sent to Earth by such a machine, known as a lunar mass driver.

A lunar mass driver is basically a long tube along which a payload is accelerated using electromagnets. Rather than relying on expendable fuel like rocket propellant, a mass driver on the Moon could run on solar power. The idea of a mass driver is that when a payload is accelerated to a speed greater than the escape velocity of the Moon (2.4 kilometres or 1.5 miles per second), it will be released from the tube and travel into lunar orbit, where it can be picked up by a larger cargo spacecraft for use in space or transportation to Earth. Rather than sending large payloads, a lunar mass driver will launch multiple small payloads, possibly several per second depending on its design.

These proposals have been considered for use on Earth, but the lower gravity and lack of atmosphere on the Moon makes it a much more desirable location. Creating a mass driver on Earth that could propel a payload into orbit around our planet would be incredibly difficult. To reach and maintain low Earth orbit, for example, a spacecraft or payload needs to have a velocity of about 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles) per second, or 28,000 kilometres (17,400 miles) per hour, and it would also have to contend with the Earth’s atmosphere and its relatively strong gravitational pull. By comparison, the Moon has no atmosphere and much lower gravity, meaning a payload can more easily be accelerated to the speed required to escape the Moon.

A lunar mass driver is, of course, something very much still in a concept stage. Few actual experiments have been carried out on the possibility of building any sort of mass driver, but if we are to one day colonise the Moon building such a structure could be imperative for the transportation of useful material to Earth.


Lunar mass driver: Why we should build a space gun on the Moon

How a magnetic railgun could one day launch material from the Moon to Earth

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Hover over the icons for more information. Illustration by Adrian Mann.

Sometimes when we envision the future of space exploration, we like to let our imagination get the better of ourselves. Today we’re seeing a new breed of rockets and space vehicles that are increasing our ability to access space like never before.

So when we come across a design like the Kankoh-maru, even though it’s blatantly obvious we won’t be seeing anything of the sort flying in our lifetimes, there’s no harm in dreaming of a future where such vehicles are commonplace, right?

The Kankoh-maru, as seen above, was a concept devised by the Japanese Rocket Society in 1993. Named after the steam-powered Japanese Kankō Maru warship, this bizarre egg-shaped vehicle would take off and land by itself, known as VTVL (vertical takeoff and landing), as a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) spacecraft. The whole thing is reusable and, with each launch, the Kankoh-maru could take 50 people into orbit.

In recent years a variety of tests on VTVL vehicles have been carried out, most notably SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket, but nothing on the scale of the Kankoh-maru has ever really been considered, let alone tested.

Nonetheless, the design of the Kankoh-maru is certainly intriguing. This vehicle, weighing about 550 metric tons (1,200,000 pounds), would tower 23.5 metres (77 feet) above the ground and have a diameter at its base of 18 metres (59 feet).

The spacecraft is split into two sections, with a propulsion section at the bottom using four boosters and eight sustainer rockets providing thrust at sea level and in space respectively. Above the propulsion section is the payload section, with the cockpit sitting at the very top.

The purpose of this spacecraft would be to take a large number of crew into Earth orbit, either to a orbiting space hotel or just for short orbital trips. The ambitious goals of the spacecraft would see 700,000 passengers a year being taken into space via a fleet of 52 Kankoh-marus with a ticket price of $25,000 (£16,000) a head. Each of the 52 vehicles would be expected to fly 300 flights a year.

Maybe one day vehicles such as this will regularly take paying customers into space, offering extended stays on orbiting hotels or acting as the first leg of a journey to a futuristic lunar colony. Who knows. For now, we’ll simply have to imagine what could come to pass in a future where space travel is accessible to all, and the Kankoh-maru certainly fits the bill of affording that accessibility even if it is, you know, somewhat ambitious in its design.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @Astro_Jonny


This is one of the most ambitious spacecraft that’ll (probably) never fly in your lifetime

The Kankoh-maru is a reusable spacecraft that would be capable of taking 50 people to and from orbit – if it can even be built, that is.

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Scroll over the icons for more information. Illustration by Adrian Mann.

Around Jupiter lurks Ganymede, one of the four Galilean moons and the largest natural satellite in the Solar System. In fact, with a diameter of about 5,270 kilometres (3,275 miles), it is larger even than the planet Mercury and has almost twice the mass of Earth’s Moon.

However, it is not the size of Ganymede that is of most interest. This giant moon, 640 million kilometres (400 million miles) from Earth, has an icy surface and might be hiding a saltwater ocean underground, while its atmosphere bears tantalising hints of oxygen and may even possess a thin ozone layer. For these reasons it has garnered a lot of interest for future exploration missions and one of those, Russia’s Ganymede Lander, could touch down on the surface in the next 20 years.

The Ganymede Lander would launch along with the European Space Agency’s Juipter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) spacecraft in 2022, arriving at Jupiter around 2030 after using gravitational assists to reach the giant planet. The collaboration would allow JUICE to scour Ganymede for a suitable landing site for the lander, although a separate Russian orbiter might also join the launch to provide a back-up option to find a landing site.

The lander itself would be a stationary vehicle, touching down on a region of interest on Ganymede to perform scientific analysis. A large antenna on the top would communicate with Earth, while numerous instruments including cameras and spectrometers would analyse the surrounding area. The main focus of the mission would be astrobiology.

This would be the first such mission ever attempted in the Jovian system. So far spacecraft have landed on Venus, the Moon, Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan; landing on Ganymede would mark the sixth body in the Solar System (including Earth) that humanity has left its mark upon.

The Ganymede Lander is still in a concept stage at the moment. Russia will spend up to $1 million (£650,000) on research and development for the spacecraft in 2014 to determine the feasibility of such a mission, with construction on the first prototypes to begin in 2017 if all goes to plan.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @Astro_Jonny


Could we land on Ganymede? Russia says yes, and here’s how they’d do it

Take a look at Russia’s plan to land a spacecraft on the largest moon in the Solar System.

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The testing of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and many other similar projects in various states of development means that we are about to enter an era of commercial spaceflight.

This will bring about huge changes in the aerospace industry, which has prompted the European Space Agency (ESA) to look at how it should respond to this new environment. Being only able to help and fund commercial suborbital spaceplane projects in Europe, ESA has proposed the construction of a generic European “Cryogenic Sub-orbital Spacecraft”.

ESA looked at three different reusable spaceplane concepts that could use the Vinci rocket engine that is currently being developed as an upper stage rocket for their Ariane launch vehicle. The first had a conventional tail assembly and wings, the second had a forward canard, wings and butterfly tail assembly, and the third had a canard and winglets.

The ESA report favoured the second vehicle concept, as the design allows it to carry payloads on its back that can be launched into low Earth orbit. It would have a total weight of 13,920 kilograms (30,625 pounds) at takeoff, and would operate from an airstrip like a conventional aircraft. Using a fuel load of 7,515 kilograms (16,534 pounds), it would blast the craft to a maximum speed of 4,176 kilometres (2,595 mph).

The Vinci engine, which is capable of being fired up to 5 times on each mission, takes the two crew and six passengers to a height of 107.65 kilometres (66.8 miles) where several minutes of weightlessness can be experienced before the craft glides back down to Earth.

This vision of a potential Vinci spaceplane would use the technology currently being developed by ESA, and it would be able to use ESA’s expertise in astronaut training and space medicine. ESA is also able to help the flow and exchange of information between interested parties and to help meet the demands of European Aviation Safety Agency certification and other European legal requirements.

The Vinci spaceplane would certainly be able to send a variety of payloads into orbit at a lower cost per launch than conventional rockets, and could be equal to the commercial suborbital spaceplanes being developed in the United States. Whether any European companies are willing or able to take up the technological and economic challenges that need to be surmounted, before the Vinci spaceplane can take flight, is something only time will tell.


Forget the Shuttle – the ESA’s Vinci spaceplane is the future of space travel

Our exclusive illustration gives you the world’s first opportunity to see what this new concept vehicle from the ESA could look like.