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Foundations of a Spacefaring Civilization, Part I: Rocket Technology

The Deadalus Interstellar Spacecraft. Image Credit: Adrian Mann &  Icarus intersellar.org  If you do know what this website is...please, please check it out. 

The Deadalus Interstellar Spacecraft. Image Credit: Adrian Mann & Icarus intersellar.org If you do know what this website is...please, please check it out. 

Humanity's journey to become a spacefaring civilization is not a sprint. It is not one giant leap. It is the greatest marathon in history. It requires perseverance and grit. A slow crawl against all odds to fight our way out of Earth's gravity well and gain a foothold in space...and eventually on another world. The cosmos is a truly inhospitable place, and we will need all of our technology and willpower to survive as a species. You will not wake up one day and realize that humans colonized the solar system. This is aspiration unlike any other...one that can only be achieved by stacking experience and technological advancement on top risk-taking, huge investments, and cutting edge engineering. To get there we need to see profitable growth and big returns as private companies forge partnerships with governments to open new markets. State Space agencies must begin rethinking their strategic goals as a the commercial space economy begins to emerge. 2014 was a hallmark year for the space industry -- one filled with both triumphs and tragedy in pursuit of the stars. There were more space launches in 2014 than in any year in the previous two decades. It was a year greater than the sum of its parts, and one that will go down in history as one of the foundation years for our spacefaring civilization. Humanity is finally developing the framework and infrastructure necessary to become make the impossible...possible. Big things are starting to happen and the public and the investment community is becoming engaged in a way we have not seen since the space race of the 20th century. Over the next three weeks, we will show you why you should be so excited. We will start with rockets:

Rocket Technology is Advancing to New Territory

The rocket technology we use today is surprisingly similar to the rockets that were used 40 years ago. This is particularly odd when you consider how much humans love to improve upon useful technology.  Most transportation modes we use today are vastly superior, more reliable, and more cost effective than they were 40 years ago. This was far too long to go without a major breakthrough if we hope to expand into space. Luckily, things are beginning to change. The first area of innovation is in rocket fuel itself. We are beginning to see a shift away from Kerosene based rocket fuel (known as RP-1) and over to liquid methane (also known as liquefied natural gas). We already know that SpaceX's next generation Raptor engine will be fueled by methane and liquid oxygen. This was an obvious choice given SpaceX's focus on Mars. Methane rocket fuel can be sourced from the Martian atmosphere and other areas of our solar system, making it an ideal fuel for a spacefaring civilization. In 2014 we saw the announcement of a surprising partnership between Blue Origin, the space firm run by Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon) and the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  The ULA is the largest and most successful space launch provider in history and an established giant of US defense department and NASA launches. The two companies announced they would jointly develop a new liquid methane rocket engine known as the BE-4, which will power the ULA's Next Generation Launch System (NGLS). This marks the first major fuel shift we have seen in the space industry, hopefully with more innovations just around the corner. 

On the engineering side of the equation, SpaceX is getting very close to one of the greatest achievements in space launch capability. A true game changer. The traditional problem with rockets is they are incredibly expensive and they can only be used once. Therefore the best way to reduce the cost of space launch systems is to re-use the rocket core. This is a simple idea that is incredibly hard to achieve. It is known as the "holy grail of rocketry". If we can create re-usable rocket boosters, we can exponentially lower the cost of launching material to space. This is one of the most basic concepts required to if we are going to expand our reach into the solar system. On January 10, 2014, SpaceX successfully launched an unmanned dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS).  After the deployment of the spacecraft, the rocket booster successfully navigated back to an autonomous drone platform in the Atlantic Ocean where it attempted to land. The rocket did make it to the platform but landed "hard" and was destroyed. This marks one of the first times anyone has successfully controlled a rocket's reentry and navigation back to a platform in the ocean. SpaceX continues their relentless technological forward progress and hopes to successfully land a booster in 2015. Here is how they are going to do it:  

Image Credit: SpaceX and  Karl Tate for Space.com

Image Credit: SpaceX and Karl Tate for Space.com

The SpaceX autonomous ocean drone platform Image Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX autonomous ocean drone platform Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX testing the reusable rocket stage in Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX testing the reusable rocket stage in Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

Coming Next week, Part II: Space Mining & Orbital Manufacturing.  Subscribe below to have part II and III delivered to your inbox. 

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Amazon Founder is Developing a Natural Gas Rocket Engine

Blue Origin, the secretive spacecraft company founded by entrepreneur and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, announced today they will develop a liquefied methane rocket engine in partnership with the largest space launch provider in the US, the United Launch Alliance (ULA). This comes on the heels of similar news from SpaceX, the private space exploration firm founded by Elon Musk. SpaceX announced in April that they will begin testing liquid methane as a fuel for the next generation Raptor engine at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The Raptor engine is anticipated to replace the current Merlin engine which powers the Falcon 9 rocket.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas Rocket

The United Launch Alliance Atlas Rocket

Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft 

Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft 

Methane rocket engines use high quality natural gas, which is refined into 99.9% pure liquid methane as the primary fuel. The methane is combined with liquid oxygen and burned in the thrust chamber of the rocket, producing the incredible lift required to escape Earth's gravity. Methane engines have numerous performance, storage and cost advantages over tradition RP-1 rocket fuel, which is made from Kerosene, a petroleum product. The fuel is also attractive because it can potentially be made from the atmosphere of Mars, eliminating the need to carry the fuel required for a return journey. 

NASA tested a liquid methane engine in partnership with XCOR in 2007, shown in the video below. The liquid methane for the NASA tests was provided by Clean Energy, a natural gas provider and cryogenics specialist based in Newport Beach, CA.  

This marks the first major partnership for Blue Origins, which has until now been a quiet player in the commercial space industry. The ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.  Founded in 2006, the ULA operates the Atlas and Delta rockets and have launched a combined total of 1,300 missions. 

The official announcement can be found on the ULA website here.

Water, Oceans of Methane, and the Future of Rocket Fuel


Water is really amazing.  It is one of the primary reasons we exist.  We need it to live, and many people need to live near it. it is one of our world engines, affecting almost everything we experience from weather to thirst to a relaxing bath.  It is absolutely essential to our species. 

Water is also essential to space exploration.  When searching for life elsewhere in the universe, we typically begin by searching for water.  It will satisfy the biological needs of astronauts. It can be used to shield us from cosmic radiation, to grow plants and food, and eventually produce rocket fuel.  Our current rockets utilize massive amounts of liquid propellant to escape the earth’s gravity well.  This means that launching from the planet’s surface is incredibly inefficient and very expensive.  As much as 90% of a rocket’s mass is the propellant, limiting the size of the payload it can actually deliver to space.  The solution to this problem is in-situ or space-based fuel production.   If we can develop the means to produce fuel in space, we can refuel spacecraft in orbit and eliminate the need to haul huge amounts of fuel from earth’s surface.  Producing fuel in this manner is one of the key strategies which will allow humans to become a spacefaring civilization.  This is also the exact business plan of one FuelSpace's favorite companies: Shackleton Energy.

Asteroids, comets, moons, and even the atmospheres of other planets are all sources of water that can be mined.  It is highly likely that the oceans of our own planet are a result of asteroid and comet strikes during the late heavy bombardment of earth.  During this period of time, Jupiter’s gravity created chaos in the asteroid belt and earth was bombarded by millions of asteroids, many containing huge amounts of water in the form of ice.  Many scientists now believe this is one of the primary reasons that our planet now holds so much water.  This means that asteroids were potentially the seeds for life here on earth.  


A large asteroid can potentially hold more freshwater than is found on all of earth, making them extremely attractive targets for water mining.  Planetary moons can also hold an abundance of water.  Our own moon is thought to contain huge amounts of water in the form of ice sheltered in deep craters on the surface.  Such areas are never exposed to the sun and therefore contain vast quantities of minable ice.  Jupiter’s moon Europa has been one of the most attractive locations in the solar system in our search for life.  Europa took it a step further in 2013 by exposing her undergarmets. Scientists have discovered what they believe are huge geysers of liquid water on Europa.     

Water can also be found on planets, and not just in liquid form.  The atmospheres of some planets can be used to produce water.  Mars is the most likely candidate for human exploration in the near future, and the Martian atmosphere is primarily composed of carbon dioxide.  This carbon dioxide can be combined with a small amount of hydrogen brought from earth and, using basic chemical processes, can be used to produce methane and water. Both of which can then be utilized to produce rocket fuel. Here on Earth Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs), which are powered by methane, are making huge inroads into the commercial fleet markets (trucking, mining, rail, marine, etc.) and rockets are next on the industry's hit list. Liquid methane rocket fuel is less expensive than traditional RP-1 which is derived from oil-based kerosene, and it is also highly abundant in space. In the future, one could easily fuel up liquid methane powered rockets on Saturn's moon Titan. The moon holds vast oceans of liquid methane which will eventually be tapped as a refueling depot.  Elon Musk's Rocket Wizards over at at SpaceX have mentioned Methane as a potential fuel for Mars missions, and next year will begin testing a liquid methane powered Raptor engine.   The Raptor will be designed as a higher thrust version of the Merlin engine line currently in production on the Falcon 9 rocket.   

Water is essential to human survival and will be an integral part of our expansion into space.  Lucky for us,  it is readily available and throughout our solar system, as long as we know where to look.