NASA is exploring new payload fairings aboard the Space Launch System (SLS), a concrete indicator that the agency plans to launch payloads aside from the crewed Orion capsule.
The agency released a request for information (RFI) on 1 November soliciting information on potential payload fairings. Such payload fairings are crucial for protecting satellites from aerodynamic forces and airborne debris during launch.
"SLS can make challenging human and science missions possible in large part because of the unprecedented size of the payload it can lift," says Todd May, NASA's SLS programme manager. "We are hopeful industry may offer some innovative and affordable ideas about alternative fairing and adapter options."
Options called for in the RFI include modifications to the planned 8.4m (27.6ft) fairing - the same size as the vehicle's core stage - and a smaller 5m fairing adapted from existing launchers. One requirement is that the fairing be adaptable to the interim upper stage, which is adapted from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV. Delta IV uses either a 4m or 5m fairing depending on the payload requirements, and the interim stage is expected to fly on SLS at least once before the Rocketdyne J-2X standard upper stage completes testing.
While cargo has been discussed, the launch vehicle is primarily designed to launch crewed Orion capsules, which, typical of spacecraft expected to reenter, are to be launched with a different fairing configuration. SLS will initially be capable of lofting 70t into low Earth orbit (LEO), with additional improvements that will allow it to launch 130t, making it the world's most powerful operational launcher.