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SpaceX propulsion guru looks ahead to Mars

Tom Mueller
Tom Mueller, SpaceX’s propulsion chief technology officer, meets his fans at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LOS ANGELES — SpaceX’s success owes a lot to the tenacity of the company’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, but some of the credit has to go to the guy who designed the engines that make the rockets go.

That would be Tom Mueller, who was one of SpaceX’s first employees back in 2002 and now serves as its propulsion chief technology officer.

Today Mueller recounted the creation of SpaceX’s Merlin engines, and dropped some hints about the more powerful Raptor engines to come, while picking up a Space Pioneer Award here at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference.

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Aerojet engine wins a place on Vulcan rocket

Aerojet RL10 rocket engine
Aerojet Rocketdyne has successfully tested a full-scale, 3-D-printed thrust chamber assembly for its workhorse RL10 rocket engine. (Aerojet Rocketdyne Photo)

United Launch Alliance has chosen Aerojet Rocketdyne over Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture to provide the upper-stage rocket engine for its next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle.

But the suspense continues in the bigger contest to provide the more powerful first-stage engines.

Aerojet’s RL10 engine had been considered the favorite to power ULA’s Vulcan Centaur upper stage, which is to be used when the Vulcan makes its debut in 2020.

For more than 50 years, the hydrogen-fueled RL10 has been a mainstay of the Centaur, which came into play most recently last weekend when it powered NASA’s Mars InSight lander out of Earth orbit.

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Satellite fleet will get water-spraying thrusters

Comet propulsion system
Deep Space Industries’ Comet propulsion system uses water vapor as propellant. (DSI Illustration)

California-based Deep Space Industries says it has signed a contract to provide water-spraying thrusters for the BlackSky Earth observation satellites that are due to be built in Seattle.

The contract covers an initial block of 20 Comet water-based satellite propulsion systems. The systems expel superheated water vapor as propellant to adjust the attitude of small spacecraft in orbit.

Twenty satellites are scheduled to go into orbit by 2020 in the first phase of an Earth observation effort managed by BlackSky, a subsidiary of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries. The first satellite, dubbed Global-1, is due for launch this year.

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MSNW’s plasma thruster fires up Congress

Pulsed power units
Pulsed power units are arrayed around the business end of MSNW’s thruster. (MSNW Photo)

How will we send humans to the moon, Mars and other destinations in space? The chances are good that electric propulsion will play a role, and a company called MSNW is at the cutting edge of that technology.

The director of propulsion research for Redmond, Wash.-based MSNW, Anthony Pancotti, will take a share of Capitol Hill’s spotlight on June 29 during a hearing organized by the House Subcommittee on Space. And he expects to learn as much from his encounter with lawmakers as they’ll learn from him.

“We’re all curious about what Congress wants to talk about,” Pancotti told GeekWire from Washington, D.C., on the eve of the hearing.

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