In focus… Industrial gases and space exploration

Driving down the American freeway it was the 10-story tall NASA insignia adorning the side of the space agency’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) that signalled I had arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has long served as America’s spaceport, hosting all of the federal government’s manned spaceflights since the late 1960s. I was lucky enough to get a special invite to go behind the scenes and visit the Cryogenics Test Laboratory in November and hear about the vital role industrial gases play in space exploration. “Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and helium: these gases, and their liquefied forms of storage and handling, are the driver for the entire space enterprise. It’s not possible without them,” James Fesmire, Senior Principal Investigator and founder of the Cryogenics Test Laboratory at NASA Kennedy Space Center, told me. “The centrepiece of any launch vehicle is chemical-based stored energy, it fundamentally is. Any rocket is basically a big flying set of tanks with engines at the bottom.” Looking back to NASA’s Apollo program, which ran from 1961 to 1975, and landed the first man on the Moon, Adam Swanger, NASA Research Engineer, highlighted the importance of liquefied gases to these missions. “They were central to it. To me, a kind of equivalent question would be: how important is uranium, or some other radioactive material, to a nuclear reactor or a nuclear power plant? Without it, there is no reason for it to exist or it cannot exist. Without liquid oxygen you don’t have human space flight,” Swanger said. NASA is currently building and testing the most powerful rocket in history to send American astronauts back to the Moon, through the Artemis program. Derived from the Greek goddess of the Moon and twin sister to Apollo, whose namesake program first brought crews to the Moon 50 years ago, the Artemis program will send the first woman and next man to the lunar south pole by 2024 – an ambitious deadline set last year by President Donald Trump. This time when NASA goes to the Moon, the space agency is going to stay, with the purpose of learning how to live and work on another world so it can use that knowledge and information to take its next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars. And industrial gases will be play a major role in this. Here, in this latest In Focus… gas world spoke with Ad Astra Rocket, INOX and Chesterfield Special Cylinders to find out what involvement they have in the space industry. Ad Astra Rocket American rocket propulsion company Ad Astra Rocket, founded by former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz, is working on a revolutionary high-power plasma propulsion electric rocket engine, the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). “The VASIMR, will transform the way we move around in space by providing a transportation solution that allows for higher fuel efficiency, lower fuel costs, larger payload capabilities, multiple application purposes, and major scalability,” Chang Diaz explained. The rocket engine has added flexibility to efficiently process a variety of propellant gases depending on mission requirements. Although Argon is the gas used for most of the company’s current testing, the VASIMR has done tests to show its performance with: Hydrogen, Helium, Neon, and Krypton. Each gas does offer different advantages depending on the type of mission requirements. This flexibility is one of the many ways in which this engine displays range. “As such, it will help improve our current space transportation capabilities, enhance the economics of space operations, and expand the human presence in space,” Dr. Jared Squire, Vice-President of Research, said. Ad Astra Rocket Company is currently finishing up its milestones for the NASA NextSTEPprogram, to help graduate the VASIMR to a Technology Readiness Level 6 (TRL6). TRL 6 is the phase of maturity for a space technology or component, in which a space-flight ready prototype is built and tested, in preparation for its debut launch. “The VASIMR is at the end of TRL 5, we have two more tests to go before we enter into TRL 6. Once there our focus will shift to the final design, construction and testing of our very first Space Flight Prototype!” Squire said. “In other words, we will be building the prototype that will be launched and tested in space! We, of course, would like to finish those two tests before the end of the year but with the current Covid-19 situation, while still moving forward, our progress has slowed a bit.” Chesterfield Special Cylinders Beyond the US and NASA, UK-based Chesterfield Special Cylinders (CSC) supplies the European Space Agency and the French Government’s National Centre for Space Studies with high-pressure gas cylinders and tubes for its space rocket launches, including Ariane 5, Vega and Soyuz. It also provides Italian space sector specialist Telematic Solutions with bespoke 1,000 litre helium tubes for the pressurisation of tanks implemented on its rocket launcher. “We have also developed a close working relationship with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) where our expertise and experience is helping the overall development of ISRO’s gas-based activities,” CSC’s Sales Director Lee Lawrence told gasworld. The activities carried out at the ISRO’s Mahendragiri site include assembly, integration and testing of earth storable propellant engines, cryogenic engines and stages for launch vehicles; high altitude testing of engines and thrusters; and production of cryogenic propellants for the cryogenic rocket programme. INOX Another company who has been working closely with ISRO for more than two decades is cryogenic engineering company INOX. During this period, INOX has not only supplied industrial gases but also designed and supplied on a turnkey basis critical equipment required for space research, including: Several propulsion systems which use liquid hydrogen, liquid helium, liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen. This equipment typically covers engine test stands and component/sub-system testing for next generation rockets. Turnkey equipment for a simulation of acoustic vibration experienced by a spacecraft. A 6.5 metre diameter themo-vacuum chamber with stringent specifications. On a turnkey basis, INOX has built a complete launch pad with cryogenic storages and supply system as well as high pressure gases storage and supply systems. “Today, ISRO carries out about 12 launches a year and consumes around 5,000 tonnes of liquid nitrogen, 660 tonnes of liquid oxygen and 12 tonnes of liquid helium every year. ISRO produces its own liquid hydrogen required for launches,” says INOX Director Parag Kulkarni. INOX has recently been entrusted with supplying high pressure (~36MPa) cryogenic tanks in various sizes to ISRO’s Cryogenic Test Facility and Department of Space, for performance evaluation of high pressure propulsion sub-systems of their launch vehicles.

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