NASA makes a significant investment in on-orbit spacecraft refueling

If one wants to have Starships on Mars, one first has to refuel them in Earth orbit.

Enlarge / If one wants to
have Starships on Mars, one first has to refuel them in Earth
orbit. (credit: SpaceX)

NASA has
reached an agreement
with 14 US companies to develop
technologies that will enable future modes of exploration in space
and on the surface of the Moon. NASA says the value of these awards
for “Tipping Point” technologies is more than $370 million.

With these awards, the space agency is leaning heavily into
technologies related to the collection, storage, and transfer of
cryogenic propellants in space. Four of the awards, totaling more
than $250 million, will go to companies specifically for “cryogenic
fluid management” tech demonstrations:

  • Eta Space of Merritt Island, Florida, $27
    million
    .�Small-scale flight demonstration of a complete
    cryogenic oxygen fluid management system. System will be the
    primary payload on a Rocket Lab Photon satellite and collect
    critical cryogenic fluid management data in orbit for nine
    months.
  • Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colorado, $89.7
    million
    . In-space demonstration mission using liquid
    hydrogen to test more than a dozen cryogenic fluid management
    technologies, positioning them for infusion into future space
    systems.
  • SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, $53.2
    million
    . Large-scale flight demonstration to transfer 10
    metric tons of cryogenic propellant, specifically liquid oxygen,
    between tanks on a Starship vehicle.
  • United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Centennial, Colorado,
    $86.2 million
    . Demonstration of a smart propulsion
    cryogenic system, using liquid oxygen and hydrogen, on a Vulcan
    Centaur upper stage. The system will test precise tank-pressure
    control, tank-to-tank transfer, and multiweek propellant
    storage.

These awards are notable because, for much of the last decade,
the agency has been hesitant to invest in technologies that will
enable the handling of cold propellant in space. The official
reason given for this reluctance has been that the technology of
creating propellant “depots,” and transferring liquid hydrogen and
oxygen to and from these depots, was deemed not ready for prime
time. But there were
political reasons as well
.

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Source: FS – All – Science – News
NASA makes a significant investment in on-orbit spacecraft
refueling