NASA explains how spaceships will refuel… in the middle of space

In 2025, NASA believes that SpaceX will be ready to join two spacecraft in orbit for an ambitious refueling demonstration, a technical feat that will bring the Moon within reach.

SpaceX has a contract with NASA to supply two human-capable Starships for the first two astronaut landings on the Moon through the agency’s Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

The first of these landings, on NASA’s Artemis III mission, is scheduled for 2026, although it is considered a very difficult date to meet. Last year, NASA awarded a contract to Blue Origin for the development of its own landing module, which offers Artemis officials two options for future missions.

Designs designed for the future, refueling in space

The designers of both landing modules were thinking ahead. They designed Starship and Blue Moon to refuel in space. This means that, over time, they will be able to be reused for multiple missions and ultimately could take advantage of the propellants produced from the resources of the Moon or Mars.

Amit Kshatriya, who leads the “From the Moon to Mars” program within NASA’s exploration division, presented SpaceX’s plan on the matter at a meeting with a committee of the NASA Advisory Council held on Friday.

The expert said that the Starship testing program is gaining momentum, and that the next test flight from SpaceX’s Starbase launch site in southern Texas is expected to take place at the end of May.

Before reaching the Moon, SpaceX and Blue Origin must master the technologies and techniques necessary for space refueling. Right now, SpaceX is planning to attempt next year the first demonstration of large-scale propellant transfer between two starships in orbit.

Until then, several test flights of starships will be carried out. During the last test flight of the Starship in March, SpaceX conducted a cryogenic propellant transfer test between two tanks inside the vehicle.

This transfer of liquid oxygen from tank to tank was part of a demonstration funded by NASA. Agency officials said this demonstration would allow engineers to learn more about how the fluid behaves in a low gravity environment.

Kshatriya said that, although engineers are still analyzing the results of the cryogenic transfer demonstration, the test on the starship flight in March “was a resounding success”.

“That milestone is now behind us,” he said on Friday. Now, SpaceX will move forward with more test flights of the Starship. The next launch will attempt to test some capabilities that SpaceX did not demonstrate in the March test flight.

NASA-explains-how-spaceships-will-refuel

Among them will be included a precise landing of the Super Heavy Starship rocket in the Gulf of Mexico, necessary before SpaceX attempts to land the rocket on its launch platform in Texas.

Another objective will probably be the in-flight restart of a single Starship Raptor engine, something that SpaceX did not achieve in the March flight due to unexpected vehicle oscillations while navigating through space.

Achieving an in-orbit engine restart – necessary to guide the Starship towards a controlled reentry – is a prerequisite for future launches to a stable higher orbitwhere the spacecraft could remain for hours, days, or weeks to deploy satellites and attempt refueling.

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