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Refueling at spaced out intervals instead of requiring space propulsion units to carry all of their fuel with them for the entire trip can enable both longer trips and smaller fuel containers.

Orbiting gas station could refuel lunar missions – [newscientist.com]

This would allow NASA to mount moon missions without spending billions of dollars developing the gigantic Ares V rocket. Existing, less powerful rockets such as Boeing’s Delta IV or Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V would suffice, he says.

Prior to each moon mission, fuel would be ferried to the orbiting depot by these or even smaller rockets operated by private companies. Competition for this work would drive down costs and spur development of more efficient launch vehicles, Goff argues. “Until we lower the cost of transportation to space, we’re never going to see serious off-world exploration,” he says.

Very Cold Research for an In-Space Refueling Station – [nasa.gov]

In low gravity, surface tension causes most liquids to adhere to and wrap around the tank wall instead of collecting at the tank “bottom.” This makes it hard to determine how much propellant is in a tank. This tendency also causes difficulties in transferring fuel. Another problem for an in-space refueling depot is that solar heating can cause propellants in the storage tanks to boil, increasing pressures. For safe operation, a zero-boil-off system is needed to keep heat from reaching the tank or to refrigerate the propellants so that they do not need to be vented to prevent pressure buildup. Glenn’s in-space cryogenic depot research includes tests for developing a low-gravity gauge to determine how much propellant is left in a tank, long-term zero-boil-off storage tests of cryogenic propellants to reduce losses and make smaller storage tanks possible, and tests of devices for transferring cryogenic propellants in space.

Jules Verne Makes First Refueling Transfer – [redorbit.com]

ESA’s Jules Verne ATV was used for the first time yesterday to transfer in one step 811 kg of refueling propellant to the International Space Station while the two vehicles orbited Earth at 28 000 km/h. With this premiere for Europe, Jules Verne becomes the first western spaceship to succeed in refueling another space infrastructure in orbit.

While the first step was refueling the space station and the next step might be refueling a moon-bound mission, the concept needs to be developed beyond current propulsion thinking. Different thrust capability is needed for different missions and that could mean developing one ship for reaching Earth orbit and another one for going on to the Moon. This would entail not just a refueling depot but a “transfer station” where a crew and/or cargo moves from one type of vehicle to another. The final step in expanding this process will be producing replacement fuel without having to ferry it up through the gravity well from the surface of the planet. Hydrogen and oxygen can be produced on the Moon and moved to refuel depots far more cheaply. Solar energy can be collected and stored at low cost and used to drive particles out of ion thrusters for low thrust missions.

A Space Program for the Rest of Us – [thenewatlantis.com]

Resources and Refueling

Not only might lunar resources be used to fill up the tanks of lunar landers, but the Moon might conceivably become a regular source of propellant, or at least the oxidizer component of propellant, for the entire fuel infrastructure. With a production infrastructure in place, propellant made on the Moon could become cheaper in space than propellant made on Earth and shipped to space, since it would not have to be freed from Earth’s gravity well. Later, propellant might be made from resources found on asteroids or comets (which, because they hold water, could provide the resources needed for both fuel and oxidizer), further reducing the demand for propellant made on and launched from Earth.

In short, a space-refueling infrastructure would vastly reduce the cost of propellant (the vast bulk of the mass required for extraterrestrial exploration), it would allow full reusability of all transportation elements (at first between Earth and the Moon, and eventually out into the solar system), and it would result in low marginal transportation costs and great scalability.

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