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Scientists discuss heavy lift Space Launch System for outer planets missions

Space Launch System takes off

While NASA’s former Deputy Administrator infamous called for the cancellation of the Space Launch System, asking sarcastically, “Where is it going to go?” a group of scientists think they have part of an answer, according to a January 14, 2014 report by the space agency.

Both human space flight experts and planetary scientists gathered at the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) meeting in Tucson, Ariz. where the capabilities of the SLS for sending probes to the Outer Planets were touted.

The first iteration of the Space Launch System, due to launch in 2017, will be capable of launching 70 metric tons to low Earth orbit. This will give it plenty of power to boost large scientific probes by a direct route, cutting trip times substantially.

Currently probes like Juno and before in Cassini and Galileo are obliged to tank circuitous routes to destinations like Jupiter and Saturn by flying close by planets like the Earth and Venus to gain a gravitational boost. This is an effective manner of accelerating these probes to get them to the Outer Planets, but it is time consuming.

With a rocket like the SLS, quite a few dream expeditions to the Outer Planets and their moons become possible. Probes could be sent to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Titan and Enceladus, moons of Saturn. Uranus and Neptune could be orbited by their own equivalents of Galileo and Cassini, exploring those worlds and their systems of moons as thoroughly as has Jupiter and Saturn.

Of course such dream expeditions will take money and commitment. It will mean increasing the planned production of Space Launch System rockets. But it seems that, given resources, the heavy lifter will be just as much of a boon to robotic space exploration as it could be for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit.