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Oct 06 2015

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Water-based CubeSat propulsion

NASA Launch Competition To Include A Water-Propelled Satellite Designed By Cornell Students. Cornell is currently in 3rd place in CubeQuest’s Lunar Derby, and if their design is in the final top 3 in Feb 2017, then they’ll have earned their CubeSat a spot on the SLS launch in 2018.

“Traditional rockets tend to burn hydrogen gas and/or oxygen gas to propel themselves, so in that sense we are using the same fuel,” Camera said. “The hydrogen and oxygen are usually carefully stored in their gaseous state onboard the rockets. Because of this, they need to be kept at their specific cryogenic temperatures and pressure to avoid premature combustion, leaking, and catastrophic failure. Since we are storing the hydrogen and oxygen in the form of water and electrolyzing as we go, we don’t need to worry about maintaining the temperature and/or pressure of the gases.”

This is a good approach for a CubeSat, as the small amount of water it needs can be heated with little power so it doesn’t freeze. But will such an approach work for larger craft? I can think of two reasons why you’d want to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen before pumping it aboard as rocket fuel:

  1. With larger storage tanks required, either more heat would have to be provided and the water circulated so that it wouldn’t freeze, or the storage tank would have to be heavily insulated (with less required heat). Keeping large tanks of water from freezing in tanks or piping would be a challenge.
  2. Water doesn’t compress. I believe you’d be able to store much more oxygen and hydrogen within the same volume as water, because the gases could be compressed

Permanent link to this article: http://www.newspaceraces.com/2015/10/06/water-based-cubesat-propulsion/

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