Outer Space: The New Untapped Fuel Market?

Looking for the next untapped growth market? Try outer space.

If humans are ever to live and explore in deep space for extended periods, space gas stations may prove a vital necessity. Toward that end, NASA has awarded contracts to four companies with plans to study how to store and transfer fuel in space, Space.com reports.

It’s not simply a matter of building a gas station in orbit. Rocket fuel is cryogenic, meaning super-cold substances like liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. If not kept extremely chilled and protected, some of those liquids tend to boil off into gases.

“Storing cryogenic propellants such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen in space for long periods of time with minimal boil-off is critical for deep space human exploration,” according to a NASA statement.

With NASA’s space shuttles now retired, the agency is embarking on a program to pursue human missions to an asteroid by 2025, and to Mars by the mid 2030s, per a directive by President Barack Obama. For these missions, and eventual colonies in space, spaceships will likely need to refuel either in orbit or on the surface of another planet or moon.

NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program awarded a total of $2.4 million to Analytical Mechanics Associates Inc. of Hampton, Va., Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation of Boulder, Colo., The Boeing Company of Huntington Beach, Calif., and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in Littleton, Colo., for the project, according to Space.com.

“Each company will provide a final report to help define a mission concept to demonstrate the cryogenic fluid management technologies, capabilities and infrastructure required for sustainable, affordable human presence in space,” said the NASA statement.

The projects will focus on identifying gaps in current technology necessary for space gas stations, and investigating innovative ways to pursue building the depots, the report said. Eventually, NASA aims to fly a test mission to try out the technologies developed through the program.

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