Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Now you can actually drink the rocket fuel


Water as rocket fuel can be a giant leap for space research, by reducing the cost of space travel, making it safer and lightweight alternative solution than the currently available one.

Space travel is a matter of high interest to not only modern-day scientists, but it was even in ancient times as well. However, with the progress of science, human started becoming ambitious and finally entered the space and deep space, stepped onto other space objects as well.

Since early 1950, efforts are being made to make space travel possible, feasible and affordable. It was a giant leap for mankind’s quest for knowledge and space mystery, when in 1969, NASA sent Edwin Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the moon. Since then, various space agencies from across the world have sent their men to explore the outer world.

A lot of research and development goes into the making of different requirements for space travel. But, the biggest requirement to travel to space is the vehicle or what is better known as rockets, spaceships.

A lot of fuel is required to power the 10-story size rockets that go into space. For that, scientists have kept on searching and researching about fuels that can easily propel rockets into the outer atmosphere or in the orbits of other planets without much hassle.

In the past, petrol and diesel were seen as the best alternative for propelling rockets into space, but now scientists have come up with new fuel and a new method to send rockets into space. Currently, the space going rockets use solid fuel propellant, which is very expensive.

rocket fuel
Source: Spaceflight Inc./Lisa Middlebrook

Solid fuel: A safe but costly solution

The solid rocket fuel is a composite consisting of a solid oxidizer such as ammonium nitrate, ammonium dinitramide, ammonium perchlorate, potassium nitrate that come in a polymer binder mixed with energetic compounds such as HMX, RDX, along with metallic additives like beryllium, aluminium etc. It also uses plasticizers, stabilizers, and burn rate modifiers such as copper oxide, iron oxide.

While finding the liquid propellant costs for rockets is relatively easy, finding costs for solid fuels is more difficult. But, considering the necessity of utmost safety of rockets, solid fuel comes as the best solution for the space going models. The cost of a solid rocket propellant is estimated at approximately $5/kg.

rocket fuel
Source: NASA

Water is the new age rocket fuel

However, it seems the day is not very far away when the space-bound rockets from around the world will make their journey fuelled by water.

Yes you read it right. Water will be the new fuel for rockets.

Water as rocket fuel certainly is an innovative and path-breaking scientific discovery. Water is an element that is available plenty across the world. Using it as rocket fuel can actually bring down the space research cost massively, especially when mankind is mulling the idea to send astronauts to Mars and beyond. Also, NASA is planning to send a human to the moon again.

NASA scientists have discovered a very unique method of using water as rocket fuel in rockets, which breaks the water into hydrogen and oxygen and then liquefy those elements to fuel the space vehicle.

The current system of propelling rockets is a high-risk operation, but as of now, there’s no viable alternative to it. The system works by firing gas out of the rear of the vehicle in a way that pushes it forward, thanks to the laws of physics. Such propulsion systems are very tightly packed but have a lot of power so as to keep the spacecraft hovering in the orbits for weeks, months or even decades at times.

But using the current propulsion system can pose a variety of threats too!

Packing energy into a small volume and mass in the form of fuel means even the slightest issue can have disastrous consequences, as we saw with the recent SpaceX rocket explosion. Putting satellites in orbit with any form of unstable fuel onboard could spell disaster for expensive hardware or even worse, human life.

Water, in this case, is an alternative solution to resolve this issue because it is essentially an energy carrier rather than a fuel. The Cornell University team working on this technology isn’t planning to use water itself as a propellant but to rather use electricity from solar panels to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen and use them as the fuel. These two gases, when recombined and ignited will burn or explode, churning out the energy that they took in during the splitting process. The outcome of the burning of these two gaseous elements will carry forward the rocket into outer space.

rocket fuel

What’s making water as rocket fuel more interesting?

Think about the moon as the refuelling base for future interplanetary and deep-space missions. A lunar base can actually act as a refuelling base for the rockets. This way, the rockets can go without taking all its propellant onboard, which will make the vehicles lightweight and faster as well. Instead, shedding the weight can accommodate for more astronauts or scientific equipment etc. It will also make the spacecraft launch way much cheaper.

Such a step is important because the earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull necessitate the use of tons of fuel per second when the rockets are launched towards space. Creating a sustainable source of fuel in space could reduce the costs and hazards associated with heavy liftoffs. As research has revealed that moon has a huge reserve of billion-year-old water, if that can be converted into rocket fuel, shooting a rocket to Mars or Jupiter will become a more frequent and less expensive affair.

Also Read: Nokia bags $14.1 million from NASA to roll out 4G on Moon

Sending satellites in space too is an expensive affair for the countries and space agencies across the world. With water as rocket fuel, the satellites can be powered by water as well. This will reduce the cost of space research drastically for sure.

Solar panels have negative movable parts and are very highly reliable. Hence, they’re the ideal power source in zero gravity and extreme environment of outer space. They can effectively harness the power of the sun and in turn help the satellites to actively engage on their targets. This is why the satellites use solar panels for energy sources. Traditionally this energy is stored in batteries on board the satellites. But the Cornell University scientists want to use it to create their fuel source by splitting the on-board water.

Water as rocket fuel: Any other option?

Researchers led by NASA’s former chief technologist are hoping to launch satellite-carrying water as the source of its fuel. A team from Cornell University, guided by Mason Peck, wants their device to become the first shoebox-sized ‘CubeSat’ to orbit the moon while demonstrating the potential of water as a source of spacecraft fuel. It’s a safe, stable substance that’s relatively common even in space, but could also find greater use here on Earth as we search for alternatives to fossil fuels.

Yes, water can then power the car, motorcycle, trucks and bus engines as well. Considering the fact that the ICE engines are built to be fuelled by liquid propellants like petrol or diesel, water can become a viable alternative solution, with more research and invest going into it.

rocket fuel
Source: Tethers Unlimited Inc./Mason Freedman

NASA PTD: Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator

NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator or PTD is a series of missions demonstrating novel CubeSat technologies in low-earth orbit, providing significant enhancements to the performance of small and effective spacecraft.

The first mission of the series, dubbed as PTD-1, is slated to launch in January 2021 using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the Transporter-1 mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. In another project, NASA is sending a swarm of three CubeSats, known as V-R3x, to demonstrate the autonomous radio networking and navigation technology.

PTD-1’s propulsion system will produce gas propellants, a mix of hydrogen and oxygen after breaking water, only when activated in orbit. The system applies an electric current through the water to chemically separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gases, a process christened as electrolysis.

The CubeSat’s solar arrays harness energy from the Sun to supply the electric power needed to operate the miniature electrolysis system. These gases are more energetic fuels than water; burning hydrogen and oxygen gas in a rocket nozzle generates more thrust than using “unsplit” liquid water as a propellant. It strikes a better balance between performance and safety for spacecraft propulsion, meaning CubeSats will get more bangs for the buck.

David Mayer, Project Manager, PTD-1 said that this system uses water as the fuel in an energetic way, with an inherently safe system, which is new in this technology. “We are disallowed from using high-performance propulsion systems in CubeSats because of the nature of how we launch these missions, namely by being attached to other spacecraft,” said Mayer, adding “Water is the safest rocket fuel I know of.”

The propulsion system is named Hydros, developed by Tethers Unlimited Inc., in Bothell, Washington. This water-based propulsion technology was initially developed under a NASA Small Business Innovation Research contract and then developed under a NASA Tipping Point partnership. Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc. developed the PTD spacecraft bus in Irvine, California. Tyvak is also performing payload integration and operations for the PTD-1 mission. The Spaceflight Inc. of Seattle is providing integration and rideshare services for the PTD-1 spacecraft.

Also Read: Astronaut Raja Chari might be the first Indian going to Moon


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