MIT researchers are planning to build a gas station in space, positioned at some point between the earth and the moon, which can fuel the future spacecraft going on lunar missions. These space-based spacecraft refueling station would involve low cost and require lesser maintenance. The space station will be positioned at Lagrange points, which is that region of space somewhere between the Earth, the moon and the sun that sustain gravitational equilibrium and thus remain at one place with respect to moon and earth.
Until now the spacecraft heading for any mission, either in low Earth orbit or going to a destination much beyond that, needs to carry every bit of the fuel, required during the mission and some extra fuel known as contingency propellant, to be used in emergency situations. Generally, these additional propellants remain unused. These extra fuels either are left on the moon or get burned while the spacecraft enters the Earth’s atmosphere.
The researchers with the aim to cut down on long term investment for the project, proposed that after the completion of the mission, the additional unused fuel supply that are carried by the spacecraft can be dropped at this station. And these unused fuel dropped at the station will refuel the spacecraft when needed.
The space refueling center can considerably cut down on the amount of on-board fuel to be carried by the spacecraft and giving plenty of room for carrying other equipment required for the scientific analysis.
A professor of the practice in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Jeffrey Hoffman, says that in their mission, they like to take the total advantage of the rocket lifting capacity and the current spacecraft need to carry a huge amount of the propellant. And cutting these extra fuel gives more space for other necessary equipment.
Researchers further suggested that the spacecraft that require refueling can grab a fuel container using a robotic arm or can make use of galactic gas pump, which can pump the fuel directly in their fuel tanks like we refuel our cars. Though it would be little challenging in the gravity free area, as liquids tend to float.
The idea and design seem promising for the future missions, which can stay a longer time in space and collect valuable information. However, there are certain issues to be answered. The maintenance of these stations, positioning the station within the Lagrange point and preventing the fuel from boiling off as fuel tends to boil off if not kept in a cold environment.
A refueling station would be a great step for new ventures like the Mars One creating a human settlement on Mars and other missions that are carried in search of extraterrestrial life.