NASA testing methane engines for space

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NASA testing methane engines for space

The replacement for the existing liquid hydrogen fuel may be methane, a fuel abundent in the solar system and easier to transport.

On January 16, 2007, a dazzling blue flame blasted across the sands of the Mojave desert. In many respects, it looked like an ordinary rocket engine test, but this was different. While most NASA rockets are powered by liquid oxygen and hydrogen or solid chemicals, "we were testing a methane engine," says project manager Terri Tramel of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC).

The main engine, built and fired by the NASA contractor team Alliant Techsystems/XCOR Aerospace, is still in an early stage of development and isn't ready for space. But if the technology proves itself, methane engines like this one could eventually be key to deep space exploration.

Methane (CH4), the principal component of natural gas, is abundant in the outer solar system. It can be harvested from Mars, Titan, Jupiter, and many other planets and moons. With fuel waiting at the destination, a rocket leaving Earth wouldn't have to carry so much propellant, reducing the cost of a mission.

Perhaps surprisingly, this flammable gas has never powered a spacecraft before. But now scientists and engineers at Marshall, the Glenn Research Center and the Johnson Space Center are developing LOX/methane engines as an option for the future. "Several efforts are underway, including a rival LOX/methane main engine design by KT Engineering," notes Tramel.

"This work is funded by NASA's Exploration Technology Development Program and shows how technologies being developed for exploration may one day assist in future science missions," says Mark D. Klem, manager of the Propulsion and Cryogenics Advanced Development Project at the Glenn Research Center.

"Methane has so many advantages," continues Tramel. "The question is, why haven't we done this before?"

Consider the following: Liquid hydrogen fuel used by the space shuttle must be stored at a temperature of -252.9C—only about 20 degrees above absolute zero!

Liquid methane, on the other hand, can be stored at the much warmer and more convenient temperature of -161.6C. That means methane fuel tanks wouldn't need as much insulation, making them lighter and thus cheaper to launch. The tanks could also be smaller, because liquid methane is denser than liquid hydrogen, again saving money and weight.

Methane also gets high marks for human safety. While some rocket fuels are potentially toxic, "methane is what we call a green propellant," Tramel says. "You don't have to put on a HAZMAT suit to handle it like fuels used on many space vehicles."

But the key attraction for methane is that it exists or can be made on many worlds that NASA might want to visit someday, including Mars.

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By netchicken: posted on 6-5-2007

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