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Above: One of proposed configurations of NASA's Ares I booster included a Centaur upper stage (right). Credit: NASA
By Igor Rosenberg and Anatoly Zak
US and Russian space contractors mulled the possibility of joint cargo missions to the lunar orbit, which could support manned expeditions to the Moon.
According to the annual report of RKK Energia, Russia’s leading developer of manned spacecraft, during 2008 the company studied the possibility of launching its workhorse Progress cargo ship into the lunar orbit. The project was conducted under a contract with a leading American aerospace company Lockheed Martin and evaluated the US-built Centaur upper stage as a carrier of the Russian cargo vehicle into the lunar orbit.
According to RKK Energia, the company looked at the possibility of a Progress demo mission to the lunar orbit, along with a possible architecture of the transport system to deliver cargo into the lunar orbit.
The exact flight scenarios considered in the study had not been disclosed, however previous NASA documents showed the possibility of the integration of the Centaur upper stage with the Ares I booster. The Ares I launch vehicle is being developed for NASA’s Constellation program and it has an unmanned payload capacity to the low-Earth orbit of around 30 tons. Speculative estimates also indicate that Centaur equipped with a Russian-built passive docking port, could deliver a seven-ton Progress to the lunar orbit, after its launch by a standard Russian Soyuz booster and the following linkup with the Centaur in the low-Earth orbit.
The Progress cargo ship was instrumental in enabling record-breaking Soviet long-duration missions onboard Salyut space stations and the ship remains a major logistics bridge to the International Space Station. The spacecraft could play a similar role in future lunar missions, however it would need a new launch vehicle and the rocket stage, such as Centaur, to leave the Earth orbit and reach the Moon. Using propulsion capabilities of the upper stage, the Progress could enter lunar orbit and then use its own engines to dock with the lunar orbital space station or with a manned vehicle heading to or returning from the lunar surface. The docking port on Progress enables transfer of rocket propellant from its tanks into another spacecraft with a compatible docking port. On October 2, 2009, RKK Energia and Boeing signed a memorandum of intent in Moscow for joint development of the common docking mechanism based on the Russian system known as APAS for the next-generation spacecraft.
Last year, a review of NASA’s future strategy conducted by a special panel appointed by US president Barack Obama opened door to foreign partners to the meaningful participation in the future US manned space flight. "If international partners are actively engaged, including on the “critical path” to success, there could be substantial benefits to foreign relations, and more resources overall could become available (for achieving the goals of the US manned space flight)," the report said in the summary of its key findings. The recommendation reversed five years of American policy of excluding international partners from providing any key elements of NASA's strategy for the return to the Moon, such as launch vehicles, transport spacecraft or lunar landers.
Estimated trans-lunar injection and lunar orbit capabilities for the Centaur stage:
Last update: October 9, 2012
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The Progress cargo ship could continue playing a crucial role in logistical support of lunar expeditions. Credit: NASA
In 2009, Russian and US aerospace industry officially started cooperation in development of a common docking interface. The work could potentially facilitate joint lunar missions. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak