The Future of Rocket Fuel: Greener, More Efficient, and More Powerful

Future of Rocket Fuel

The space industry is buzzing with excitement, and a lot of it has to do with the growing demand for reusable rockets. These aren’t just any rockets; they’re designed to shoot satellites into orbit and then come back down, ready for another mission.

The coolest part? These rockets aren’t just making space travel more cost-effective; they’re also opening the door to even more ambitious projects—think missions that go way beyond Earth. Companies are now looking at new types of rocket fuel to make all this happen. So, yeah, the future of space exploration is shaping up to be pretty darn amazing.

Why It’s Important: Companies are seriously shaking things up when it comes to powering rockets. The goal? To get spacecraft into orbit more efficiently, of course! And guess what? They’re experimenting with new types of rocket fuel to turn this dream into reality. So, it’s safe to say that the rocket science behind getting us into space is getting a major makeover.

What’s Going on: This past July, China’s Landspace did something pretty groundbreaking. They successfully launched a rocket using a never-before-seen fuel mix of liquid methane and oxygen. Yep, it’s the first time in history this has ever happened! So, it looks like the future of rocket fuel might just be getting a little more interesting.

  • what’s the latest buzz in the rocket world? Well, it turns out methane is becoming the go-to fuel for some of the industry’s heavy hitters. We’re talking about SpaceX’s Starship, designed for deep-space missions; RocketLab’s Neutron; Blue Origin’s New Glenn; and ULA’s Vulcan Centaur. Yep, all of these next-gen rockets are running on methane. Pretty cool, right?
  • So, here’s the catch: while all these rockets are designed to be reusable, which is super cool for the future of space travel, none of them have actually had a successful launch yet. Fingers crossed that changes soon!

How it functions: Most liquid-fuel rockets today use either a mix of kerosene and oxygen (called “kerolox”) or hydrogen and oxygen (called “hydrolox”).

  • However, because kerolox doesn’t burn cleanly, it can only be used once in a rocket. For the storage and transportation of liquid hydrogen, substantial infrastructure is required.
  • But compared to kerosene, methane is a cleaner and more effective fuel.
  • It’s also conceivable that methane may be produced on Mars from carbon dioxide and hydrogen, doing away with the need to transport heavy fuel from Earth.

Zoom in: In the upcoming years, methane will replace kerosene as the preferred rocket fuel.

  • Stephen Heister, an engineering professor at Purdue University, tells Axios that interest in using methane as rocket fuel has grown significantly during the past 20 years. “In most cases, kerosene, which was utilized during the Apollo program, is being replaced.”
  • Methane wasn’t as accessible during the Apollo period as it is now, according to Heister. But, he continued, with increased natural gas production and processing, liquid methane has become more accessible.
  • According to Heister, methane also generates 10% greater thrust than kerosene. It is difficult to dispute that you would generate 10% higher thrust if you were utilizing the same propellant flow rates.

Yes, but: Concerns regarding the effects of these rockets and their fuel on the environment are growing as the space business develops and more launch service providers go online.

  • Even though methane burns cleaner than kerosene, it is still conceivable for methane to escape from gas pipelines while they are being transported, which would contribute to the acceleration of climate change.

What to See: Scientists are looking into other possible rocket fuels besides methane.

  • In the early stages of research is a biofuel made from a molecule made by a type of bacteria. Last year, a hybrid biofuel rocket engine was tested.