NASA‘s successful Mars landing of InSight at the end of November marks a turning point for space exploration. While it’s been more than four decades since the first successful Mars landing, the remotely-operated InSight will gather more information than we’ve ever had about the composition of the red planet. It could be the key to discovering major insights about the formation and fate of our own planet.
As much as this moment renews our marvel at the amazing capabilities of modern space exploration technology, for those of us who spend our lives innovating in this sector, it’s a reminder that to a very large extent, the propulsion industry has not evolved much since the 20th century. The machinery and vessels we send to orbit and beyond are more capable than ever. And yet, Legacy Space organizations have been slow to evolve when it comes to what sends these machines to space.
This is where NewSpace can play a starring role…
The barrier-to-entry for private firms getting in on the space race has never been lower. Whereas the 20th century was dominated by NASA, ESA, and other state-sponsored or quasi-national aerospace organizations, private enterprises are more influential than ever in the global space race. This trend and the organizations that comprise it, collectively known as NewSpace, have accelerated space tech innovation and opened up collaboration channels that didn’t exist before.
NewSpace now has the opportunity to take the lead in a domain that’s fundamental to any space-related activity and increasingly consequential: what propels the machines we send into space. Next-generation fuel solutions are already here, and they have the ability to make satellite deployment and other space projects more sustainable and cost-effective — not only for the environment and the people who come in contact with these materials but also for the balance sheets of the enterprises who operate satellites.
Here’s why NewSpace enterprises really have no choice but to lead the way in adopting alternative fuel sources for spacecrafts.
The Devastating Impact of Traditional Fuels
It doesn’t take much intensive study to see how much the engineering of spacecrafts has evolved throughout the history of modern space exploration, which spans a little more than 60 years. From external fuel tanks to orbiters to remote manipulator systems, spacecrafts have evolved for safer and more effective missions, enabling us to push the boundaries of what we understand about the known universe.
But as incredible as this evolution has been, the use of sensible fuels has stagnated. Most spacecrafts and satellites are still powered by highly toxic hydrazine-based fuels, and the consequences are numerous. Hydrazine is both hazardous to the environment and is highly toxic for humans that come in contact with it. There is extensive research that illustrates how damaging hydrazine is to marine and freshwater species as well as for soil compositions. For humans, acute exposure to hydrazine can cause nausea and vomiting while extended exposure can increase a person’s chance of developing cancer and other chronic conditions.
If that weren’t enough, hydrazine is also highly unstable, making it a monumental challenge (and incredibly expensive) to safely store and transport fuels that contain the compound. This makes it all the more likely for people to be accidentally exposed to hydrazine-based compounds, or for these chemicals to contaminate the environment.
Of course, this is not new information — but a regulatory body finally may do something about it. The European agency REACH (Regulation for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) is considering banning the use of any hydrazine-based chemicals as early as 2021 — including for sending spacecrafts and satellites into space.
The time has come for aerospace operators to seek out an alternative fuel source. The good news is there’s one that’s already here.
Why Alternative Fuels Make Economic Sense
Right now, it’s estimated that there are just under 5,000 satellites in orbit performing a variety of functions, from telecommunication and earth observation to weather prediction and global navigation systems such as GPS. It may seem like the orbit is already crowded, but remarkably, the FCC recently approved SpaceX to send more than 7,500 new satellites into space — part of a plan to deploy about 12,000 satellites to improve internet connectivity. The European aerospace conglomerate Airbus has plans to work with operators to deploy satellites, as do tech companies like Samsung and even Facebook.
In other words, even with most conservative projections, we are very likely to see the number of satellites in orbit more than triple within the next few years.
For the various operators involved in the deployment of these massive constellations, it’s an opportunity to take us to the next generation of powering satellite deployment, by using non-toxic fuels that represent a giant step forward in sustainability and safety, compared with the 20th-century problems hydrazine fuels perpetuate.
But it’s not just the toxicity and instability of hydrazine-based fuels that make them so problematic. They’re also incredibly expensive — typically more than $300 per kilogram. Further, a refueling campaign with traditional toxic fuels is incredibly complex and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. For small satellite operators, it often costs just as much to build satellites that sent into orbit as it does to fuel and refuel them. Using alternative rocket propellants that combine green fuels and oxidizers are as much as 90% more cost effective for large satellite operators than using hydrazine-based fuels — not just for the fuel itself, but also the operation of refueling becomes far less risky, and therefore far less expensive, when using less hazardous materials.
The potential economic impact of making the change to alternative fuels is substantial — and no small part of it is in the hands of NewSpace. Although they operate on discretionary budgets, Legacy Space organizations may not have the incentive to make the change from hydrazine-based fuels until they are forced to; NewSpace enterprises, on the other hand, can take the lead on how satellites are sent into space, but also to save millions of dollars on their projects.
For some operators, it may not just be an astronomical cost-saving measure: It may be the only way to stay solvent.
Power Does Not Have to Be Compromised
Some skeptics may feel as though the environmental and economic impact of alternative rocket propellants may not be enough to merit the switch from hydrazine-based fuels; that when it comes to spacecraft launches and satellite deployments, the only thing that matters when it comes to the fuel source is performance.
Performance and cost ought to be of chief concern to any satellite operator or launch provider… which is all the more reason for them to deploy using alternative fuel sources that are non-toxic to the environment. We’ve reached a point in which non-hydrazine-based fuels are on par in terms of performance with those that are composed of hydrazine — especially when it comes to in-space propulsion. With this in mind, it gets hard to imagine what incentive any operator would have to deploy satellites and rockets that use hydrazine fuels.
The bottom line is we can’t truly enter into a new generation of space exploration while relying on 20th-century rocket propellants. At this point, it makes sense from environmental, economical, and engineering perspectives. While we’re likely to see the transition legislated within the next few years, which would force everyone to modernize their propulsion strategies, NewSpace has the chance to blaze the trail forward before this time comes. It may very well be the best business decision operators within this space can make.
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