One of the greatest obstacles in space travel is fuel, especially when you’re launching off of a planet. Take the Space Shuttle, NASA’s work horse for many decades. When it lifts off, the Orbiter is coupled to two booster rockets and one massive fuel tank — it’s the big orange thing in the middle. It takes all that just to get one craft into orbit. And fuel is a double-edged sword; the more you have, the more it weighs, and the more thrust you need to lift it all. In an attempt to solve this lingering problem surrounding space travel, NASA is now accepting proposals for space-based refueling stations.
The plan is simple to explain: Put unmanned craft in orbit that holds huge amounts of fuel that can replenish the supply aboard larger craft that have further to go. This could lower the size — and cost — of existing space missions, and even support larger, more ambitious ones. For instance, in a Moon or Mars mission, refueling stations could be placed at key points along the flight path, lowering the amount of fuel the spacecraft would have to carry.
Of course, nothing is easy in space. The fuel depots would be exposed to the intense radiation in space, all while having to keep the chemical fuels at low temperatures. Moreover, the reliability of long-duration depots would have to be extremely high as they would likely sit dormant between missions.
NASA has outlined a year-long mission for a hypothetical mission it calls CRYOSTAT. Hoping to get the most out of an ever-shrinking budget and emerging private-sector space companies, NASA is accepting any and all serious proposals for gas stations in space. The proposals will have to solve serious engineering problems, like transferring fuel between craft, and storing the liquid oxygen propellant. Ideally, the space agency sees such a mission costing $200 million, but is willing to hear proposals up to $300 million if they offer significant capability increases.
The deadline is May 23 for anyone that has a comprehensive plan to tank up in orbit or beyond. Were this project to go forward, it could radically change how us Earthlings approach space travel, and would be a valuable step towards any mission beyond our home planet.
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