As we saw recently with the analogy of salt grains for stars, the scale of things cosmic stuns the imagination. But we don’t have to go to galactic scale. We can stay much closer to home and achieve the same effect. Because at our current technological levels, getting even as far as the outer planets taxes our capabilities. The least explored types of planet in our Solar System are the dwarf worlds, places like Ceres, Pluto and Charon, not to mention the enigmatic Triton. It takes years to reach them.

Beyond these objects we have a wide range of other dwarfs that merit study, at distances that push us ever farther. In a description of their NIAC Phase I study, just announced as a selection for 2022, Jason Benkoski and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University look into a combination heat shield and solar propulsion system that would perform a close Solar pass and use the Sun’s gravity to slingshot outwards at the highest possible velocity. It’s a maneuver familiar to Centauri Dreams readers, and one recently examined by the Interstellar Probe team at JHU’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Benkoski is a materials scientist who has been working with the APL team, envisioning a tight solar pass around the Sun followed by the firing of a thruster to enhance the craft’s acceleration. This will require the probe to move within 1.6 million kilometers of the Sun’s surface, actually four times closer than the Parker Solar Probe plans to reach by 2025. In a 2021 article in Johns Hopkins Magazine, Benkoski explained the concept, which will preserve the heat shield by using channels filled with hydrogen gas that are built into the bulk of the shield itself. As the article puts it:

During the probe’s searing slingshot around the sun, the gas would heat up, expand, and course through the channels that all lead to a single exhaust nozzle. “The idea is to absorb all this heat with hydrogen,” Benkoski says, “and shoot it out the back of the probe.” In this way, the cooling setup also opportunistically doubles as an engine, thus supplying the thrust needed to complete the Oberth maneuver in the first place. “It’s like hitting two birds with one stone,” Benkoski says.

Image: Graphic depiction of combined heat shield and solar thermal propulsion system for an Oberth maneuver. Credit: Jason Benkoski.

The team believes that advances in materials science and engineering make their solar thermal engine concept a workable model for development. The 20 x 20 cm prototype they designed and fabricated is at benchtop scale, using liquid helium as coolant and propellant. The new study will extend this work, taking the concept into the realm of realistic materials and propellants. No small challenge, that, given that the contemplated Oberth maneuver would subject the probe to temperatures of 2500 degrees C, enough to melt even the Parker Solar Probe’s heat shield.

Benkoski points out that neither of our Voyagers was designed for observing the interstellar medium through which it now passes, while of course the Pioneers have long since ceased to function. New Horizons remains thankfully robust but will ultimately succumb to dwindling power levels and lose communications with Earth. The numbers are daunting: The Voyagers managed 3.6 AU per year, while even a full-stack SLS (which will never fly this mission) would push a 1 tonne spacecraft only to 8 AU per year.

The latter would require not just a working SLS but a Jupiter gravity assist, limiting the fly-out direction of our probes. Hence the need for a solar Oberth maneuver, in Benkoski’s thinking, which would be capable of surviving temperatures of 2800 K and use propellants now under study to widen the range of potential mission targets:

We…therefore propose a full trade study of alternate propellants in order to determine the maximum escape velocity for a given total system mass, including spacecraft, heat shield, propellant storage, and attitude control system. The main propellants of interest include H2, LiH, Li, CH4, NH3, and H2O. Methods: First we would determine material compatibility for each propellant with respect to its proposed storage system. We then calculate the efficiency (specific impulse) as a function of temperature for each propellant using Chemical Equilibrium Analysis (CEA).

Benkoski intends to discover how the mass and storage volume of the tank scale with the quantity of propellant to produce a series of realistic tank designs, devising an equation for the heat shield area and maximum propellant fraction that can be achieved given the limitations of existing heavy boosters. We’ll see how this study fares in producing a full-scale heat shield/heat exchanger design with robust long-term cryogenic storage. A tight Oberth maneuver is not going to be easy. See Assessing the Oberth Maneuver for Interstellar Probe for some of the myriad reasons why.