Helium-3 is available in the regolith of the moon and is a possible fuel for advanced nuclear fusion reactors on Earth. It would be extracted from the lunar regolith, packaged and returned to Earth. One question is how to return the helium-3 to the Earth. One approach is to use aerodynamic braking to return the helium-3 to a low Earth orbit where it would be picked up by the Space Rapid Transit (SRT) reusable launch vehicle and delivered to an airport where it would be shipped to power plants. SRT It is a two stage to orbit vehicle with a hypersonic air-breathing engine in the first stage.
The overall architecture is shown below.
One of the major advantages of SRT is that it can land and takeoff at any major airport. The first stage can be used as a transport vehicle. Since it is fully reusable and operates like an aircraft it is potentially much less expensive than vertical launch.
The return from the Earth involves launching the helium-3 tanker into orbit and then doing a departure burn that puts the spacecraft in an elliptical Earth orbit with a low perigee. As the return vehicle passes through perigee, aerodynamic drag lowers apogee until apogee and perigee are the same. This is shown in the following plots.
The first plot show the altitude from the Earth, the velocity magnitude and the drag force magnitude. The second plot shows the orbit. The last plot shows how apogee is reduced with each pass through perigee. It takes 10 weeks to enter the final orbit if the orbit perigee is 100 km. Note that perigee doesn’t change. The simulation uses a free-molecular aerodynamic flow model. For simplicity, it does not include lunar gravity perturbations.
Ideally, the lunar return vehicle would be brought back to Earth and reused.
The maneuver uses only drag. A lifting vehicle would have an additional degree of freedom since the force vector could be controlled.
This analysis was done with the Spacecraft Control Toolbox. The function will be available in Version 2020.2 available in early fall. Contact us for more information!