Washington, August 8 (ANI): Astronauts in the future may not worry if their rocket runs out of fuel, as they would be able to gas up at orbital gas stations floating in space, an idea which is finding favor with a group of scientists.
According to a report in Discovery News, the idea of orbital gas stations has been put forward by members of a presidential panel assessing options for NASA, in respect to sticking plans for a base on the moon or heading straight to Mars.
Stashing rocket fuel in orbit around Earth would open a world of possibilities for long-distance space travel, said a subcommittee of the board convened by the White House to review the human space flight program of the US.
"It is often said that if you want to go beyond LEO (low-Earth orbit, or about 200 miles above the planet) you've got to have a big rocket. I don't think that's right," said Jeff Greason, co-founder of XCOR Aerospace based in Mojave, California, and a member of the space program review panel.
A key facet of the current plan for the space program after the space shuttles are retired next year is to design a heavy-lift rocket called Ares 5 which, like the Saturn boosters of the 1960s Apollo-era program, would have the muscle to leave Earth's orbit and deliver cargo to the moon.
The space agency estimates the cost of a program to land astronauts on the lunar surface by 2020 to be 108 billion dollars.
Current 10-year budget projections for NASA, however, fall tens of billions of dollars short, delaying the return to the moon to the mid to late 2020s in the best-case scenario.
Greason presented an alternative path, one that would rely on smaller, already existing launch vehicles to deliver propellants into orbit.
This would enable rocket stages needed for deep space travel to be launched empty or nearly empty and later fueled in space.
"You can now do much larger missions with the same-sized booster," Greason told panel members at a meeting in Cocoa Beach, Florida, last week. "It really is a game-changer," he added.
According to Jonathan Goff, a propulsion systems engineer at California-based Masten Space Systems, most of the technologies needed for orbital fuel depots are highly matured, the result of efforts to extend the life of existing upper-stage rocket engines, which are used to tweak satellites' orbits once they get into space. (ANI)