Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
Earlier this month, an MIT team proposed two ideas for orbiting fuel depots that would supply missions traveling between Earth and the Moon. These stations could operate in a “steady state”, with lunar missions dropping off unused emergency fuel for the next mission to pick up and use, or as “stockpiles” where lunar missions continually unload propellant and build up a supply for future voyages. Emergency fuel supplies carried on manned Apollo lunar missions burned up during re-entry or were simply left on the moon. Caching the fuel for future use would be a more efficient use of resources.
Although the depots still present design challenges—such as keeping the fuel cool enough to prevent it boiling away—they could revolutionize space exploration. The availability of extra propellant might allow future missions to carry less fuel and more payload, making room for things like advanced scientific equipment. A network of fuel stations could enable manned voyages to Mars and beyond.
One of the major limitations of human space exploration is spacecraft fuel capacity. Establishing a galactic gas station chain could help propel us (literally) to new reaches of our solar system. Part of the appeal of the idea is immunizing space travel against NASA budget fluctuations. This suggests commercial interests may operate the stations. As in the story on asteroid mining discussed here last year, the depots, we may see familiar names such as Shell, BP, or Exxon competing to service the stars. According to the MIT team, astronauts or automated parts could do the actual swap of fuel tanks between the depot and spacecraft. Robotic gas station attendants would be a good solution, unless the maintenance of fuel required a permanent human presence. That would be a lonely life!
The depot model could be used for other supplies, such as food and oxygen for astronauts on long voyages. What about the astronauts themselves? Imagine a spacecraft traveling for decades to establish a new colony on some remote planet. Years later, another ship following the same path could exchange its aging crew for young astronauts and continue on to found another world. Each colony would become the personnel depot for subsequent ships. It would be a long-term strategy, but would allow eventual travel to systems beyond the distance of a human lifespan.