2008

Mars Rocket Propulsion System

A report discusses the methane and carbon monoxide/LOX (McLOx) rocket for ascent from Mars as well as other critical space propulsion tasks. The system offers a specific impulse over 370 s — roughly 50 s higher than existing space-storable bio- propellants. Current Mars in-situ propellant production (ISPP) technologies produce impure methane and carbon monoxide in various combinations. While separation and purification of methane fuel is possible, it adds complexity to the propellant production process and discards an otherwise useful fuel product. The McLOx makes such complex and wasteful processes unnecessary by burning the methane/CO mixtures produced by the Mars ISPP systems without the need for further refinement.

Despite the decrease in rocket-specific impulse caused by the CO admixture, the improvement offered by concomitant increased propellant density can provide a net improvement in stage performance. One advantage is the increase of the total amount of propellant produced, but with a decrease in mass and complexity of the required ISPP plant. Methane/CO fuel mixtures also may be produced by reprocessing the organic wastes of a Moon base or a space station, making McLOx engines key for a human Lunar initiative or the International Space Station (ISS) program. Because McLOx propellant components store at a common temperature, very lightweight and compact common bulkhead tanks can be employed, improving overall stage performance further.

This work was done by Robert Zubrin and Dan Harber of Pioneer Astronautics for Marshall Space Flight Center. For further information, contact Sammy Nabors, MSFC Commercialization Lead, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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