NASA has tested components for a methane-powered engine that could be used for Mars landers.
The space agency has never before used methane as a fuel.
“With the current configuration, these methane thrusters could propel a small lander,” said Steve Hanna, lead for NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems at Marshall.
“With the data gained from these tests, the technology is scalable for even larger applications for in-space engines and larger landers.”
Methane is a promising fuel for the journey to Mars as it is more stable than liquid hydrogen, can be stored at more manageable temperatures and may be recovered or created from local resources.
The current thruster being tested, which is part of a pressure-fed design, produces 4,000 pounds of thrust. To achieve the 25,000 pounds of thrust needed for larger descent/ascent landers on Mars, and enable engines to be throttled as needed, Marshall engineers are also developing a pump-fed engine design. In the design, a turbopump will use a turbine capable of up to 95,000 revolutions per minute to deliver methane to the thruster, allowing for higher thrust levels.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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