Subscribe to our free daily newsletters
  Space Travel News  




Subscribe to our free daily newsletters



Methane Blast To Get You Going Fast

Test firing of a 7,500 pound-thrust LOX/methane engine. Image credit: Mike Massee/XCOR Aerospace.
by Patrick Barry
for NASA Science News
Huntville AL (SPX) May 05, 2007
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.

Although Mars is not rich in methane, methane can be manufactured there via the Sabatier process: Mix some carbon dioxide (CO2) with hydrogen (H), then heat the mixture to produce CH4 and H20--methane and water.

The Martian atmosphere is an abundant source of carbon dioxide, and the relatively small amount of hydrogen required for the process may be brought along from Earth or gathered in situ from Martian ice.

Traveling further out in the solar system, methane becomes even easier to come by. On Saturn's moon Titan, it is literally raining liquid methane. Titan is dotted with lakes and rivers of methane and other hydrocarbons that could one day serve as fuel depots.

Imagine, a methane-powered rocket could allow a robotic probe to land on the surface of Titan, gather geological samples, refill its tanks, and blast off to return those samples to Earth. Such a sample-return mission from the outer solar system has never been attempted.

The atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune all contain methane, and Pluto has frozen methane ice on its surface. New kinds of missions to these worlds may become possible with methane rockets.

This first series of desert test firings of the 7,500 pound-thrust main engine was a success, but challenges remain before methane rockets will be ready for use in a real mission. "One of the big questions with methane is its ability to ignite," Tramel says.

Some rocket fuels ignite spontaneously when mixed with the oxidizer, but methane requires an ignition source. Ignition sources can be hard to make in the outer solar system where planetary temperatures drop to hundreds of degrees below zero. Tramel and her colleagues at Marshall and Glenn are currently working to assure that the rocket will ignite reliably in all conditions.

Such challenges will be surmountable through NASA's continued efforts, Tramel says, and she believes LOX-methane engines will be used in rockets of the future. The blue flame in the desert was a beautiful first step.

Related Links
Methane Blast The Movie
Rocket Science News at Space-Travel.Com



Memory Foam Mattress Review
Newsletters :: SpaceDaily :: SpaceWar :: TerraDaily :: Energy Daily
XML Feeds :: Space News :: Earth News :: War News :: Solar Energy News


Rocketdyne Scramjet Engine Powers Up In First X-51A Simulated Flight
West Palm Beach FL (SPX) May 02, 2007
Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR) and its X-51A team members -- U.S. Air Force, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NASA and The Boeing Company -- successfully demonstrated operation and performance of the revolutionary X-1 scramjet engine in the first simulated flight at Mach 5 of the X-51A.







  • Methane Blast To Get You Going Fast
  • NASA Awards Heat Shield Material Contracts For Orion Spacecraft
  • Rocketdyne Scramjet Engine Powers Up In First X-51A Simulated Flight
  • UP Aerospace Readies Rocket For April 28 Launch

  • Ariane 5 Launches Twin GEO Birds
  • Lockheed Martin-Built Astra 1L Satellite Ready For Launch
  • Arianespace And Japan Continue To Build Long-Term Relationship
  • UP Aerospace Announces Successful Space Flight

  • No Launch Delay After Train With Shuttle Booster Derails In US
  • New Shuttle Launch Dates Announced
  • NASA to launch Shuttle Atlantis as early as June
  • Shuttle Assessments And Repair Work Ongoing

  • Space Station Logistics Feel Rolling Impact Of Shuttle Delays
  • NASA To Rotate Station Astronauts On Next Shuttle
  • Expedition 15 Takes Charge After Ceremony
  • ISS Crew Landing Put Off To Avoid Spring Floods

  • Heidelberg Soldiers Taste Test Two New MREs
  • Subcommittee Examines Key Challenges Confronting NASA Space Science Program
  • New Breed of Architects Specializes In Off-Planet Living
  • Star Trek Star Scotty Rockets Into Space In Final Journey

  • US Said To Block US-China Deal On Asian Satellite Operator
  • Space Peonies Blooming In Heze
  • China Launches Ocean Monitoring Satellite
  • China To Pursue Space Instead Of Socialism

  • Robot Teams Handle Hazardous Jobs
  • Mr Roboto
  • Carnegie Mellon Unveils Internet-Controlled Robots Anyone Can Build
  • Antarctic Lake Robot Probe Sets Sights On Outer Space

  • Mars Rover Spirit Finds Evidence Of Ancient Volcanic Explosion
  • COROT Discovers Its First Exoplanet And Catches Scientists By Surprise
  • Opportunity Gets A Boost Of Energy And Continues Imaging
  • Depth-To-Ice Map Of A Southern Mars Site Near Melea Planum

  • The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright Space.TV Corporation. AFP and UPI Wire Stories are copyright Agence France-Presse and United Press International. ESA Portal Reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement, agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space.TV Corp on any Web page published or hosted by Space.TV Corp. Privacy Statement