The Center for Aerospace Systems Engineering exists with the directive of conducting advanced research to further propagate NASA’s mission for space exploration and discovery.
The Center achieves this by leading research thrusts in advanced mission architectures, space architectures, vehicle systems, and various technologies that enable safe and affordable exploration endeavors in space. By doing so the Center is working to also advance NASA’s efforts to advance science and the search for extra-terrestrial life, Near-Earth-Object (NEO) defense, and the expansion of the human presence in the universe. Developing concepts for future missions is a task that presents itself with an infinite number of possibilities.
That being said, work in the Center is varied and ranges the design of future space vehicles and settlements, to questions of advanced propulsion systems, and the possible extra-terrestrial infrastructure required to propagate them. To elaborate on these ideas the Center employs advanced modeling and simulation technology to help researchers determine the best evolutionary mission sequences and develop risk profiles for possible technology development.
Work at the Center is conducted in collaboration with the NASA Langley Research Center Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate (SACD).
Current Research Activities
Methodology for Space Architecture Design and Optimization: NASA’s current lunar endeavors are to develop an evolutionary architecture based on systematic technology development to return to the Moon for testing the viability of long-term human outposts, intercepting asteroids for science and planetary protection, and eventually exploring Mars and the outer planets. Research within the Center is conducted with the objective of developing an integrated modeling and simulation environment to select the best evolutionary mission sequence approach to maximize return on investment for selected risk profiles in technology development. By representing the system architecture design mathematically, the Center will provide a means to explore multiple options by a means more efficient than previous methods. Researchers are doing this by employing graph theory, and thereby expressing physical locations (low-Earth orbit, low-lunar orbit etc.) and steady states (interplanetary trajectory) as nodes on a graph, and the different means of moving between the nodes (propulsion maneuvers, entry methods, etc.) as edges.
Performance and Cost Robust Optimization Using In-Situ Resource Utilization: In-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technologies represent a significant approach that will reduce the requisite mass and cost of a human-enabled Martian expedition. Currently several candidate technologies have been proposed, all of which at various levels of technological maturity. At NIA, the objective of this research is to identify the most important parameters governing the performance and cost of a Mars ISRU system for the production of propellant for a Mars ascent vehicle (MAV), and integrate it within the overall mission architecture.
This research will yield several deliverables, including: an analysis of multiple candidate ISRU processes and their corresponding architectures – with trade study results based on performance and cost; ranked listings of the sensitivities of performance and cost to modeling parameters that will identify those that are the most important for determining the optimal robust architecture and worthy of continued research; and, finally, a robust architecture utilizing ISRU that accounts for the uncertainty in technological assumptions, which will be developed to serve as a blueprint for future technology development programs and Mars architecture studies.
Graduate student and Ph.D. candidate, Christopher Jones, is developing the ISRU technology models, the integrated trade study capability, and will perform the analysis to determine the robust architecture. Dr. Wilhite will develop the MAV model and oversee the trade study operations. Georgia Tech Research Engineer, Dale Arney, will develop models for other Mars architectural elements.
Architecture Design and Optimization of Propellant Depots: Dr. Wilhite has been conducting research for a number of years to prove the value of orbital depots propellant depots. In December 2010, he was able to show that a propellant depot with a commercial launch vehicle architecture comparable to NASA’s Heavy-Life Launch Vehicle, can accomplish a 20 year mission with a $70B savings, or $3.5B per year. Today, NIA graduate students and a team of 20 NASA engineers and contractors support Dr. Wilhite’s research, with funding from the Langley Professor Program and the Office of the Chief Technologist.
Arney, D., and Wilhite, A., “Trade Study of Using and Refueling Large Upper Stages as In-Space Stages for Flexible Path Missions,” AIAA Paper 2011-7161, in Proceedings of the AIAA SPACE Conference and Exposition, 27-29 September 2011, Long Beach, California
Axdahl, E., Kumar, A., and Wilhite, A., “Study of Unsteady, Sphere-Driven, Shock-Induced Combustion for Application to Hypervelocity Airbreathing Propulsion,” AIAA Paper 2011-5790, in Proceedings of the 47th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference and Exhibit, 29 July-1 August 2011, San Diego, California
Chai, P., and Wilhite, A., “Cryogenic Thermal Management of Orbital Propellant Depots,” Paper IAC Paper 11-D-1-2-3, in Proceedings of the International Astronautical Federation’s 62nd International Astronautical Congress, 3-7 October 2011, Cape Town, South Africa
Jones, C., Brown, C., and Wilhite, A., “Utilization of Lunar Resources for Human Mars Missions,” AIAA Paper 2011-7223, in Proceedings of the AIAA SPACE Conference and Exposition, 27-29 September 2011, Long Beach, California
Maxwell, A., and Wilhite, A., “Crew Radiation Exposure Pre-Conceptual Phase Modeling Considerations,” AIAA Paper 2011-7326, in Proceedings of the AIAA SPACE Conference and Exposition, 27-29 September 2011, Long Beach, California
Quinlan, J., Jones, C., Vittaldev, V., and Wilhite, A., “On the Design of an Active Debris Removal Architecture for Low Earth Orbit Space Debris Remediation,” AIAA Paper 2011-7250, in Proceedings of the AIAA SPACE Conference and Exposition, 27-29 September 2011, Long Beach, California
Wagner, J., Wilhite, A., Stanley, D., and Powell, R., “An Adaptive Real Time Atmospheric Prediction Algorithm for Entry Vehicles,” AIAA Paper 2011-3200, in Proceedings of the 3rd AIAA Atmospheric Space Environments Conference, 27-30 June 2011, Honolulu, Hawaii
Arney, D., and Wilhite, A., “A Flexible Modeling Environment for Evaluating Space System Architectures,” AIAA Paper 2010-8107, in Proceedings of the AIAA Modeling and Simulation Technologies Conference, 2-5 August 2010, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Arney, D., and Wilhite, A., “A Modeling Environment for the Optimization of Space Architectures,” AIAA Paper 2010-8665, in Proceedings of the AIAA SPACE Conference and Exposition, 30 August-2 September 2010, Anaheim, California, United States
Arney, D., and Wilhite, A., “Orbital Propellant Depots Enabling Lunar Architectures Without Heavy-Lift Launch Vehicles,” J. Spacecraft Rockets, 47 (2010): 353-360, doi:10.2514/1.44532
Chai, P., and Wilhite, A., “Quantifying the Effects of Model Uncertainty on Design Mass Margin in Advanced Earth-to-Orbit Launch Vehicles,” AIAA Paper 2010-8631, in Proceedings of the AIAA SPACE Conference and Exposition, 30 August-2 September 2010, Anaheim, California, United States
Hickman, J., Wilhite, A., Stanley, D., and Komar, D., “Optimization of the Mars Ascent Vehicle for Human Space Exploration,” J. Spacecraft Rockets, 47 (2010): 361-370, doi:10.2514/1.45101
Jones, C., Kelly, S., Masse, D., Shah, A., Spells-Winski, C., “PHARO: Propellant Harvesting of Atmospheric Resources in Orbit,” in Proceedings of the IEEE Aerospace Conference, 6-13 March 2010, Big Sky, Montana, United States
Masse, D., and Wilhite, A., “Aerodynamic Optimization of an Unmanned Orbiter Vehicle,” AIAA Paper 2010-9354, in Proceedings of the 13th AIAA/ISSMO Multidisciplinary Analysis Optimization Conference, 13-15 September 2010, Fort Worth, Texas, United States
Maxwell, A., and Wilhite, A., “A Value Proposition Analysis of Propulsion Options for Crewed Mars Missions,” AIAA Paper 2010-8679, in Proceedings of the AIAA SPACE Conference and Exposition, 30 August-2 September 2010, Anaheim, California, United States
Maxell, A., and Wilhite, A., “A Value Proposition for Revolutionary Technology Applied to Crewed Mars Missions,” IAC Paper 10.A5.4.5 in Proceedings of the International Astronautical Federation’s 61st International Astronautical Congress, 27 September-1 October Prague, Czech Republic
Simon, M.A., and Wilhite, A., “Systems Level Evaluation of Space and Planetary Habitat Interior Layouts,” AIAA Paper 2010-8220, in Proceedings of the AIAA Modeling and Simulation Technologies Conference, 2-5 August 2010, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Simon, B., Bobskill, M., and Wilhite, A., “A Structured Method for Calculating Habitable Volume for In-Space and Surface Habitats,” IAC Paper 10.A5.1.2 in Proceedings of the International Astronautical Federation’s 61st International Astronautical Congress, 30 September-1 October, Prague, Czech Republic