Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Trying out new rocket fuel

This sounds promising.

Rocket propellant has barely changed in the more than 50 years since the launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik. But a new mixture of nano-aluminum powder and frozen water could make rocket launches more environmentally friendly, and even allow spacecraft to refuel at distant locations such as the moon or Mars.

The aluminum-ice propellant known as ALICE gets its kick from a chemical reaction between water and aluminum. Researchers hope that the hydrogen products of that reaction might go beyond launching rockets, and also feed hydrogen fuel cells for long duration space missions.

"In the bigger picture, we're looking at technology that can store hydrogen long term," said Steven Son, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University. "Water is a nice, stable way to store hydrogen."

Both NASA and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research have shown enough interest in the concept to fund initial rocket firing tests. The research teams at Purdue and Penn State University used ALICE to successfully launch a rocket to 1,300 feet during an August flight test.

Such technology may not see action for some years to come, or at least until NASA sorts out its space exploration plans. But the recent confirmation of water sources on the moon and Mars may hint at a future where ALICE and similar rocket propellants become highly practical.

Water and metal, reacting together to power rockets. If this technology pans out, then human interplanetary -- and perhaps even interstellar -- space travel will be within reality's grasp. The trip may not be quick, but there could be plenty of refueling stations along the way.

No comments: