The Union Recorder


April 3, 2012

Electric propulsion: Busting the Triangle

MILLEDGEVILLE — Surely you’ve heard of the infamous Project Management Triangle: things can be done fast, cheap and well, but you can always pick only two of those three characteristics: if you want something fast and cheap, it won’t be good. If you want it to be fast and good, it won’t be cheap. And if you want it good and cheap, it will take a long time. This seems to be a rather simplistic way of looking at things, but once you think about it, you’ll find it is amazingly accurate.

And nobody knows it better than NASA and all the companies involved in space technology.

Case in point: electric propulsion.

We’ve looked at the ion drive on several occasions, explored how it works and what missions it can be used in. Boeing is currently experiencing firsthand the reality of the pesky Project Management Triangle. They have invested considerable resources in the development of commercially viable electric propulsion engines that go way beyond the experimental stage and are now crossing over into big business, and commercial clients have begun placing orders.

Mostly these clients are in the communications business of launching and operating relay satellites for telecommunications of all sorts. “Business” is the operative word here. A business exists to make money, and of course it would be fantastic to get satellites into orbit fast, cheap and well. So far, the Triangle has held true.

Electric propulsion could in the very near future upset this familiar applecart and do all three. Up until recently, the launch of communications satellites, which tend to be big heavy behemoths, has required very heavy lift booster rockets. It’s a catch-22: if they could make a rocket big enough to lift a satellite of that heft straight into geostationary orbit, it would have been done. But the only option was to boost the satellite into a highly elliptical low-Earth orbit, and give it a good supply of chemical propellant so that over the course of a few weeks the satellite could fire its engines and lift itself into a circular orbit one step at a time.

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