Academics & Research

NASA plan will assist UH research

The UH Space Physics Group is attempting to build the world's first commercial high-powered deep space motor. The members' goal is to create a motor that uses a different scheme than chemical rockets. | Courtesy of UH Space Physics Group

President Barack Obama’s recent proposal for the space program not only effects NASA, but also UH researchers.

“The proposal that President Barack Obama has put on the table to emphasize developing deep space exploration technologies, with a goal of going to Mars, is right up our alley,” physics and electrical and computer engineering professor Edgar Bering said. “This is potentially a real benefit to our project.”

Bering and the UH Space Physics Group are attempting to build the world’s first commercial high-powered deep space motor. Their goal is to create a deep space motor that uses a different scheme than chemical rockets. The motor would be used for shipping bulk cargo, such as steel and water, to outer space.

“For space flight beyond low Earth orbit, particularly if you are going to the moon, chemical rockets are the way to get there fast,” Bering said. “If speed is not a problem, like for shipping cargo, then you really want to use a different scheme. For deep space beyond Earth orbit altogether, you will definitely need to use a different scheme.”

NASA stopped funding this project in 2006 when NASA Administrator Mike Griffin cut off all funding for electric propulsion in 2005. His plan was to have the Mars mission in 2035 and start funding the research again in 2020. It’s currently funded by the Ad Astra Rocket Company, with resources provided by private investors.

“He needed the money for constellation … (which) was the eggplant that ate Chicago. It was eating every other resource,” Bering said. “Franklin Chang-Diaz had already privatized the project at that point. It became a private company, the Ad Astra Rocket Co. in 2005. It has been funding my research ever since.”

Obama’s space plan makes deep space exploration a priority, but does not include taking man back to the moon.

“One of the applications of our engine would be a commercially built lunar transport tug to take cargo from the Earth orbit to the moon,” Bering said. “That particular business plan may suffer from Obama’s plan to not go back to the moon, because there would be a whole lot less need to take cargo to the moon.”

Obama’s plan also encourages private exploration of space and to get as much as possible done by the commercial private sector.

With all the attention on deep space, there are discussions of NASA funding the project again underway.

“It’s exciting right now because what we have done for years has become the top priority,” Bering said. “There is a lot of interest in what we’re doing, and all of a sudden, we’re getting a lot of focus.”

The Ad Astra Company and the UH Space Physics Group are scheduled to fly a test version of their engine on the International Space Station in 2013.

“At that point, we will actually be in a position to sell our engine,” Bering said.

“I’m not going to comment on the president’s decision, because there is a lot of emotion in that area and a lot of people who are very angry and upset in this community. But at the same time a lot of us can see that there is a lot to be said in favor of the president’s decision, and our project is going to benefit.”

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