With mighty aspirations comes a need for mighty rockets. That was theme of the "Heavy Lift" panel that took the stage at the 33rd annual Space Symposium in Colorado today and New Atlas was on hand to find out more about space telescopes, the Blue Moon project and the "tyranny of the fairing."

The panel consisted of a mix of space industry experts from both the public and private sectors and examined the ways in which "heavy lift," the power of rockets such as NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) to propel payloads to orbit and beyond, can shape space exploration.

When you think about a rocket designed to move a lot of weight a very far distance, it's natural to think about missions to Mars and other bodies in the solar system such as Jupiter's moon Europa. And, indeed, heavy lift will play a role in such planning.

"In the search for life in the universe, there's a possibility that there could be life under the ice on a moon of Jupiter, Europa," said NASA astronaut and astrophysicist John Grunsfeld. "It has a salty warm ocean, it's been that way for years and heavy lift will allow us to send the Europa Clipper to Europa and it's transformative. Instead of a seven-year trip that involves a Venus-Earth-Earth flyby and then a long cruise out to Jupiter and Europa, a heavy-lift vehicle like SLS can get us out there in under three years."

An artist's impression of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS)(Credit: NASA)

But Grunsfeld also pointed out the fact that major rocket power can help us go beyond traveling in our own cosmic backyards to searching for life elsewhere in the universe. He said that as mighty as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will be, it will still be insufficient to spot other planets that might harbor life.

"Earth 2.0 is going to be incredibly faint; fainter than the faintest galaxy in the whole deep field," he said. "Heavy lift would enable us to build a telescope to tell us whether we're alone in the universe. A 20-meter telescope would do it. We have the technology today. For the first time in human history, we also have the means to launch these. The Space Launch System is one example that can launch … a large telescope, a mission to Mars. And the family is growing rapidly."


While the technology might exist to develop such a telescope, another panelist, Jonathan Arenberg, the James Webb Space Telescope Chief Engineer at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems says there's another issue.

"I call it the tyranny of the fairing," he said, referring to the cargo-storing nose cone on a rocket. "So Webb has been designed to fit into the existing five-meter fairing; this requires a large number of deployments and releases. Elegant, exquisite engineering for making all of this work exactly as we've planned, but studies shows that we're limited to nine meters on the best day of fitting into an existing fairing. This limits us. If you look at that frontier, you find that most of the scientific promised land is beyond it. It is not acceptable with current boosters."

Grunsfeld also pointed to a potential deficiency in our current rockets in terms of an eventual Mars settlement.

"To get to Mars today, with the largest rockets we have, we can get one metric ton up there," he said. "There are lots of astronauts who would sign up to go in what's essentially a go cart today, but their longevity would be very short. You really need need to be able to get 5-10 metric ton pieces to assemble to be able to have humans on the surface of Mars and that's going to require assembly in space but also heavy lift to launch from Earth."

Not only would heavy-lifting rockets enable structures like habitats and rovers to be carried to and assembled on Mars, but Grunsfeld added that they could also carry important scientific equipment to the Red Planet that's simply too heavy to bring now, such as mass spectrometers and scanning electron microscopes.

Still, while there's clearly a need to build even more powerful rockets than SLS with even larger fairings, Blue Origin president Robert Meyerson touted the capabilities that are coming down the pipe with his company's New Glenn rocket.

A rocket line-up from Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space exploration company(Credit: Blue Origin)

"New Glenn is rather large by comparison to other rockets, but it is the smallest orbital vehicle we will ever build," he said. "It's designed to take satellites, people and just about anything far into space. It comes in two versions: a two-stage variant and a three-stage variant. Target performance for the two-stage variant is 13 metric tons to GTO (geosynchronous transfer orbit) and 45 metric tons to low-Earth orbit." He added a nod to his team for building "the world's largest LOx (liquid oxygen) engine" and said that it is designed for 100 flights. He also mentioned that the rocket should be operational in 2020.

Additionally, Meyerson talked about his company's Blue Moon initiative.

"Blue Origin has recently proposed a lunar lander architecture to cost-effectively soft land large amounts of mass onto the lunar surface," he said. "Any credible first lunar settlement is going to require such capability. We believe that the lunar surface offers valuable resources with valuable science return that can serve as a location to demonstrate key technologies and serve as an appropriate location for that long-term permanent settlement.

"We also believe the moon is in sequence for a longer-term exploration of the solar system including Mars. Blue Moon is Blue Orbit's in-space transfer and lunar lander architecture leveraging Blue and NASA technologies."

Meyerson included the video below in his talk, which gives you a look at the escape test conducted on the New Glenn rocket late last year.

The Space Symposium is held each year in Colorado Spring, Colorado. New Atlas is on the ground covering the both the panel discussions and the exhibits, which we'll detail in an upcoming photo gallery.

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