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Things You Must Know About Propellant Depots

By Martha Adams

Propellants are chemical substances used in pressurized gas or production of energy which are for generating propulsion of objects like projectiles and vehicles. They are commonly energetic materials consisting of fuel like oxidizer, rocket or jet fuels and gasoline. These produce gas by burning or decomposing but others are liquids that could be vaporized.

Rockets and aircraft use them to produce gas or an exhausted material which is expelled through the nuzzle for thrust. This material could either be plasma, liquid, or gas, and before the chemical reaction happened they were gel, liquid or solid. These are cached into a propellant depots around the orbit of Earth which lets spacecraft get refueled at space.

This allows launching of spacecrafts from Earth without carrying all the required fuel making more available area for hardware storage. This will potentially make completing the mission much easier because the needed items could be sent by having fewer launches. They would function like gas stations on space to refuel some journeying vehicles.

Space agencies, commercial companies, defense ministries, and communication satellites are potential users for this technology. Extending the lifetime of satellites placed in a geosynchronous orbit after nearly consuming all their fuel meant for orbital maneuvering is now possible. The satellite will need to approach depot or the other way around.

Depots like these are on low earth orbit with their primary functions to provide propellant to the transfer stage which are headed to moon or Mars. Smaller launch vehicles could be used to increase flight rates because their costs are lower. A depot can also be placed at the Lagrange point 1 and on orbit of Mars that reduces costs in traveling there.

Propellant takes a large portion of total mass of rockets during launch and because of this, there are some advantages in using depots. Less structural mass is required for spacecrafts because they could be launched unfueled or tankers can serve as second stage when reusable. This would also create a market for refueling in orbit where competition for delivering them makes their prices cheaper.

Some issues in engineering design for depots have not been tested yet in space or orbit servicing missions. These issues include refrigeration equipment maturity, usage for reboost and attitude control, settling and transfer, and requirements for reduced boiloff facilities. Transferring these fuels are difficult in places with no gravity since liquids tend to float away from inlet.

Refilling should be done also by the operator of that particular depot by launching tanker rockets filled with new fuel. Space agencies preferred to be purchasers instead of owners so these facilities would be probably be operated by commercial companies. Chemical propulsion tugs with short range might be used in simplifying docking large vehicles and rockets.

Research and trials have been done more by agencies to determine properly the feasibility of projects like these. More commercial companies will become interested because this technology is a new market that can be taken advantage of. It will make their plans in having space tourism more viable within a shorter time with the success of these trials.

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