The big undertaking for the European Union in space during the first decade of the 21st Century was the Discovery Project.
The heads of the European Union and ESA knew that they had entered the ‘space game’ pretty late. But ESA had already overtaken China by being the third space program to place people on the Moon, to create a nuclear propulsion system and to build a station on the Moon.
Now Europe had the desire to prove themselves to the United States and the Soviet Union as the third global power and the third space power. In this special case and with the feeling of helplessness in the wake of the East German Civil War, Germany was the nation to persuade the other nations to put more money into ESA and the Discovery Project. France and Great Britain saw the benefit of the German proposal to show everyone else that Europe was fit to be the third major world power. The other nations too saw it as a chance to share the spotlight and perhaps even set the first European step on Mars.
The Quetzal craft that had been found inside the Drachenfels, was the main item of research for the project and had been the main source of inspiration for the new Z-Pinch fusion thruster as well as a new compact nuclear reactor.
The nuclear reactor was developed by engineers from all over Europe, who had taken some inspiration from early American research on nuclear propulsion in long range bombers. With some of the experience, gained with building the Viking high temperature solid core thruster, and using the same cermet fuel elements, they successfully created a compact molten salt reactor able to produce 20 MW, operating at a temperature of 1200 Kelvin.
To make the fast-spectrum reactor as light as possible, lithium was used as primary coolant for the reactor and the entire reactor was surrounded by a radiation shield of lithium hydride, over a pressure vessel of tungsten. A pair of turbo alternators integrated into the reactor was able to produce 5 MW or electrical energy from the reactor, while the remaining 15 MW had to be disposed of in the form of heat to prevent the reactor from melting.
While it was possible to use water cooling and big cooling towers on Earth, using it in space made large radiator panels necessary to dump the waste heat, with the radiators ideally running at 800 Kelvin.
Applications for the reactor were found quickly, on Earth and in space. It was compact and light enough to be used to supply normally remote areas with electric energy, such as smaller islands or research bases in Antarctica. In some areas, like Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, the reactor could be used to desalinate seawater with its waste heat as well as produce electricity. It also reduced the need for diesel engines and aggregates, which needed to be supplied with fuel. In space the reactor would be used to power whatever was developed for Project Discovery as well as manned stations on the Moon, Mars or even further out, where solar energy was not a viable option.
The reactor, eventually named DYNAMO, sparked off research into compact reactors by other nations with nuclear know-how, producing a number of commercially successful compact black boxed nuclear reactors that needed little to no active maintenance and could operate over up to two decades, before it had to be recovered and disposed of, whether on Earth or in space. To eventually take care of this problem, a DYNAMO II reactor was already in development, making use of thorium salt as fuel, making the reactor able to breed its own fuel and make refueling possible.
The DYNAMO reactor was more than enough to provide the initial power for the Z-Pinch Thruster System, until it was able to reach full power and could, to a degree, sustain itself with energy.
As the magnetic nozzle of the Z-Pinch Thruster was directly affected by the high temperatures of the thrusters fusion plasma, it needed to be cooled, even when using a Ziggie superconducting cermet to generate the magnetic field. Using a mixture of liquid lithium fluoride and liquid beryllium fluoride, the same coolant as the DYNAMO reactor used, the operating temperature was as high as 1250 Kelvin. Most of the generated heat from the cooling system needed to be dumped by a high temperature radiator operating at the same temperature range, but some of the heat could be used to power two turbines capable of generating 10 MW or electric energy, more than sufficient to allow the engine to power itself.
Deuterium-deuterium was the fusion reaction of choice for the Z-Pinch Thruster, sidestepping issues of needing to ‘breed’ tritium from lithium for a deuterium-tritium fusion. This had the effect of actually reducing the effective energy of the fusion reaction itself by 25 percent compared to the D-T fusion and in turn the temperature of the fusion plasma and the exhaust velocity.
ESA was willing to take this disadvantage for the sake of convenience. That only left the need to create large amounts of deuterium. As heavy water, a variant of water with deuterium atoms instead of normal hydrogen atoms, had been used as moderator and cooling fluid for nuclear reactors, separating the heavy water from normal water with the Geib–Spevack process was a well known and understood method. Afterwards the heavy water could be stored like normal water and just needed to be electrolyzed into oxygen and deuterium, which could be refrigerated.
Stating the need of deuterium for future commercial fusion reactors, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Spain built heavy water plants to satisfy the need for large amounts of heavy water. Together these plants had an annual production capacity of 2500 tonnes of heavy water.
A more classical engineering development were the modules that were designed during the Discovery Project.
To replace the Cook and Columbus habitat modules, ESA developed the InflaHab and RotaryHab modules, making use of inflatable systems to increase the available space for their astronauts and in turn their comfort. While the RotaryHab was designed to provide simulated gravity for the astronauts, while sleeping, eating and during recreation, as well as in the case of injuries, the InflaHab modules were multi use modules that could be used for storage, habitation and as laboratory space.
An Interconnector Module was developed to connect up to four InflaHab modules or act as multiple docking adaptor. It also contained storage space and backup life support systems, as well as large superconducting capacitors for backup power.
Finally the Command Module was designed to make use of more advanced technologies, compared to the multitude of 70s and 80s technologies that were still used by the United States and the Soviet Union. The command module was equipped with an extended command and control section from where a spacecraft could be controlled and most externals could be observed. Opposite of the command section was a single airlock with connected lockers for up to ten space suits, which were relatively small as ESA had converted to mechanical counter pressure suits in 1997.
A pair of docking ports in zenith and nadir could be used to dock other spacecraft, while the front docking port was solely meant to dock with a space station or another larger scale spacecraft.
The weapons equipped Tactical Module and the Flamberge missiles were an afterthought for Project Discovery, but nevertheless seen as essential.
Additionally ESA started to develop the Taurus Tanker. There were two versions of the Taurus Tanker, able to carry 70 tonnes of propellant, using a Taurus Service Module for independent operation, such as rendezvousing, docking and setting an empty tanker into a suborbital trajectory to keep the orbit clean. One Taurus Tanker variant carried ammonia for the Viking Propulsion Module, and the other deuterium for the Z-Pinch Thruster. Each tanker was well within the payload range of the Theia Heavy and could be transported by the Viking Module to the Earth-Moon L1.
The first spacecrafts to make use of any of these modules were the Orbital Propellant Depot Statfjord, the Traghetto cislunar transport and the Lancer cislunar patrol craft.
Statfjord had been constructed in 2005, along with Da Gama, while the first Traghetto transport had entered service in 2007, followed by the Lancer in 2008.
2010 saw the addition of several additional structural modules to Da Gama, not all of them needed to carry a tanker, like the structural elements did on Statfjord.
By 2011 ESA felt that the Z-Pinch fusion thruster was at a stage where the first could be built by 2013. Having placed funds and material aside, ESA using Da Gama as construction site for the up to the day most ambitious project of the European Union in space, the interplanetary spacecraft Marco Polo.
The Marco Polo was projected to cost a bit less than the Apollo Project of NASA, which had brought the United States to the Moon. With a dry weight of nearly 380 tonnes, seven launches of the Theia Heavy were needed to launch all parts into Earth orbit, before unmanned Vulcan tugs transported them to Da Gama for assembly. The last assembly launch happened on April 12, 2013 bringing the Z-Pinch Thruster assembly into space.
During the construction of the Marco Polo, the United States and the Soviet Union had to revise their assumptions about how far the European Union was with the the Z-Pinch thruster, but assumed that the performance characteristics of the engine were too optimistic. That the spinal construction of the Marco Polo had fifteen docking ports for Taurus propellant tankers seemed to support that notion.
The next six launches of the Theia Heavy happened in just as many months. Shortly after finishing construction, ESA officially christened the Marco Polo and announced that her maiden voyage would bring her to Mars for the first ESA mission outside cislunar space, following a test program in cislunar space.
With a single tanker docked to the Marco Polo, she did a number of orbit changes and once boosted her orbit as out past the lunar orbit, without actually leaving the Earth Sphere of influence, before returning to Da Gama again. All tests were made with reduced power and frequency to make sure that the thruster could take the force, as well as leave the other nations guessing about the actual power of the Z-Pinch system.
Two more launches lifted Mars landers into orbit which docked to the Marco Polo, followed by a crew of ten astronauts.
On February 2, 2014 Marco Polo lit her engines for the first time and turned them off after five days of continuous operation, imparting a Delta-v of nearly 30 kilometers per second to the spacecraft, making her the fastest object built by mankind to date.
Marco Polo easily caught up and then overtook the NASA and Soviet spacecraft on their way to Mars. After a mere thirty days, she reached Mars, using a four days deceleration phase to match orbital velocities with Mars, burning the remaining propellant in three of the docked tankers, which detached from the Marco Polo and deorbited themselves into the Martian atmosphere, being destroyed as they impacted in the Valles Marineris area.
Before landing on Mars, Chris Hadfield, the sole non European astronaut and commander of the landing crew, recorded a cover of Queen’s ‘Don’t stop me now’ on the Marco Polo, after getting a green light from Brian May and Roger Taylor. A video of the cover was edited on Earth and broadcast on TV in Europe and Canada. It was later picked up by the rest of the world when the clip was put online. The clip reached over 20 million views within the next 24 hours.
Hadfield and seven other astronauts landed on the surface of Mars, east of Honore City and remained on the surface for one hundred days, by using an inflatable habitat for the duration of their stay and remained behind even as all eight astronauts returned to the Marco Polo. While the first ESA Mars expedition recovered more than five tonnes of artifacts from Mars and meet with both their NASA and Soviet counterparts, the real success for ESA was something else.
After a mission length of nearly 165 days Marco Polo arrived back in cislunar space to rendezvous and dock with Da Gama, where engineers waited to take a look at the spacecrafts thruster assembly and space frame, to make sure that she had not taken any damage.
The Marco Polo and her Z-Pinch thruster was perhaps the most advanced spacecraft built at Earth at the time and had put the European Union and ESA onto the same stage as the United States and the Soviet Union when it came to their abilities in space, thereby more than fulfilling the European dreams and hopes of importance. Additionally it had allowed ESA to prepare for a much more ambitious project.
Much like Europe, China had the same aspirations to get into the Big League of space powers. While they knew that they could not do everything, proven by their step to make their discoveries in the Quetzal documents available to the G-12 nations, that did not stop them from making the steps needed to get a bigger foothold in space.
As the only nation on Earth, they had access to a fully intact, though non-functional Quetzal craft and a good deal of translated material from within the craft itself that had not been made public.
Using this clear advantage, China carefully took their Quetzal craft apart piece by piece. Taking any precaution possible, they were filming every step from multiple angles and described every action meticulously on audiotapes. They noted the construction and the single parts for future reference and tried to copy every single system.
The first and biggest priority for China was to gain a weight advantage by developing a way to increase the payload capacity of their launch vehicles. With the Feynman-Heim Theory backing them up and the positive identification of the contra gravity system within the Quetzal craft, Chinese scientists and engineers were able to build the first, albeit relatively primitive, version of a contra gravity system, though it could only be used to reduce the mass of any objects down to fifty percent, within a spherical field of eight meters in diameter.
While that was not as powerful as the projected reduction to ten percent in a thirty meter field of the Quetzal device, it was more than enough to get a weight advantage and the ability to effectively double the payload of their launch vehicles and turning the conventional Tianlong into a super heavy lift launch vehicle, capable of lifting up to 60 tonnes into orbit.
The Tianlong Heavy Variant, using two Tianlong first stages as additional boosters, able to lift 64 tonnes into orbit without an additional third stage and introduced into service in 2003, was able to use the contragrav for a payload of 128 tonnes.
The new Qing Yumao system quickly became a standard for China’s heavy lift launches, even though the system weighed over a tonne and could only be used once before burning out and having to be discarded.
A second priority was to replace the aging Shenlong and Shuguang capsules. While a proven system, China wanted to try a new way that would awe the the nation and build up the feeling of national pride and unity.
Again they used the Quetzal craft as inspiration and began with the development of an aerospace craft, capable of leaving the atmosphere by its own power, operate in orbit and then return to Earth.
Such a design had the obvious advantage of being able to launch and land everywhere.
To propel this aerospace craft, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, proposed to use a Liquid Air Cycle Engine, short LACE. It had previously been studied by the United States Air Force during the 1950s and 1960s for the Aerospaceplane project, however had been discontinued after NASA moved to ballistic capsules with the Mercury Project.
The LACE engine made use of liquid hydrogen to rapidly cool down air and separating oxygen from the other elements in the air, before pumping it into tanks and a rocket engine for propulsion. This reduced the need to carry large amounts of liquid oxygen during ascent. The Quetzal craft made use of a similar system and the Chinese were able to build up on the system.
The Chinese LACE engine combined a pair conventional turbojet engines for subsonic and supersonic flight with a pair of aerospike engines for super and hypersonic flight.
In combination with a multi use capable version of the Qing Yumao system, the system promised to be able to carry a vehicle into space. By selecting a waverider design for the space plane, the Chinese were able to make it more compact and get some pressure assist for the LACE engine.
For reentry, the Chinese made use of active cooling by directing the remaining liquid oxygen into a heat exchanger embedded into the hull and discarding the heated oxygen by injecting it into the plasma bow shock to cool it down further.
While a big aerospace craft was under development, a first unmanned subscale prototype made a successful flight, though it didn’t leave the atmosphere. It proved that the system worked and could be used to get into space. Additionally China had produced a viable long range reconnaissance drone.
By 2013 the first full scale prototype of the Feilong spaceplane was ready for its first flight, followed by an extensive test program to determine if everything worked as intended. By February 2014 it successfully executed a pair of suborbital jumps from one end to China to the other and return, reaching speeds of up to Mach 15.
On June 3, 2014 the Feilong was ready for its first orbital flight, carrying two taikonauts and a small payload of two tonnes in the form of a scientific satellite. The flight was successful and reached orbit, followed by a set of orbital tests and a rendezvous with the Tiangong 3 Complex, without performing an actual docking.
On June 10 the Feilong returned from orbit and successfully landed on an Chinese Air Force base.
Priority Number three was not to build a Moon base or reach Mars. No, China was setting its sights further out, towards Saturn. The Fission Fragment thruster, in combination with the Qing Yumao system, opened up deep space.
Making use of their newly increased payload capacity, China was able to place the needed materials and modules into orbit by June 2014. The Chinese spacecraft was more compact in its construction and had slightly larger radiators and a rotational segment with four spokes, compared to the two spoked rotational sections of the Europeans and Soviets.
Rather than just using a single thruster, China built two Fission Fragment Thrusters, combined with a Chinese compact molten salt reactor able to produce 15 MW or energy with 3 MW of electricity.
The construction was finished early 2015 and the Chinese spacecraft, named Zheng He, activated its thrusters for the first time, if only to boost it into a higher orbit to be less affected by the atmosphere of Earth.