Out of Gas and Stuck in Space? NASA May Have a Solution

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You’re cruising round the moon, all engines go, having the time of your life, and then you notice your fuel needle’s jittering dangerously close to “E.” Tap-tap-tap, but no, it’s not stuck, and you’re about to discover how far past “E” the needle goes. What do you do?

Trade up for a spacecraft that uses a glass cockpit, for starters. But say you’re flying in NASA’s coolest new ride, the answer’s simple: Find a gas station. I don’t mean drop into Earth orbit and make for Houston or Cape Canaveral (or, failing those, the nearest swathe of ocean blue) but something more like an interstellar 7-Eleven.

While they probably won’t have slurpies or Big Gulps (or for that matter, station attendants), it looks like high-in-the-sky gas stops are in the offing. NetworkWorld noticed a just-released NASA proposal for something called an “In-Space Cryogenic Propellant Storage and Transfer Demonstration.”

Writes NASA:

The flight demonstration mission will test and validate key capabilities and technologies required for future exploration elements such as large cryogenic propulsion stages and propellant depots.

That’s basically NASA-speak for “Let’s put a gas station in space and test it,” the goal being to eventually plot safer long duration space trips, say to the Moon, asteroids, Lagrange points, or Mars.

NASA’s soliciting ideas internationally at this point, requesting proposals from anyone who cares to meet crazy-complex guidelines such as “Demonstrate long duration, in-space storage of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen cryogenic propellants” or “Demonstrate approach for minimal boil-off storage, with a goal of zero boil-off, of liquid hydrogen in microgravity.”

In theory–say NASA comes up with a scientifically plausible, financially feasible solution–these fuel depots could be sent up ahead of spacecraft and lie in wait. If you’re headed for Mars, you might send a fuel-craft to orbit the red planet in advance so it’s ready and waiting when you arrive (to fill your tanks for an eventual return trip). And imagine how much longer simple Earth-orbital missions might last if future spacecraft could fill up at select fuel nodes deployed around the planet.

Just don’t ask for the bill. NASA says the “demonstration” mission alone could cost between $200 and $300 million.

And we’re griping about $4 per gallon gas.

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