NASA Offers $200 million for an Orbiting Gas Station

NASA has put out a call for a $200 million mission to show how to store and transfer rocket propellants in space. In-space refueling technology would allow smaller and cheaper rockets to be used for missions that would otherwise be outside their weight class. It will also considerably enhance the capabilities of larger rockets. “Instead of sending the rockets fully fueled to asteroids or to Mars we would launch them partially fueled to get more payload into orbit,” Chris Moore, deputy director of advanced capabilities for NASA told “Then we’d top off the propellant by docking with depots in lower Earth orbit.”

Cryogenic Propellant Depots Design
Concepts and Risk Reduction Activities Future In-Space Operations (FISO) March 2, 2011 (30- pages, 4.5 megabytes)

NASA wants to focus on liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, the fuels that power the main engines of the space shuttles and commercial rockets. The challenge is finding ways to store and maintain the propellant, which requires extremely cold temperatures. Heat from solar flares or a rocket engine’s exhaust could evaporate the fuel or cause the tanks to expand and even explode. So any demonstration must also successfully transfer the fuel to a docked spacecraft in a zero-gravity environment.

The technology could also provide a boost to the commercial space industry. NASA could purchase fuel in orbit from commercial companies which would operate refueling tankers or possibly even permanent depots. “We could create a small space economy in propellants and refueling,” Moore said.

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