Propelling interplanetary spacecraft utilizing water-steam

Jorge Martinez, Jekan Thangavelautham

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Beyond space exploration, there are plans afoot to identify pathways to enable a space economy, where human live and work in space. One critical question is what are the resources required to sustain a space economy? Water has been identified as a critical resource both to sustain human-life but also for use in propulsion, attitude-control, power, thermal and radiation protection systems. Water may be obtained off-world through In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) in the course of human or robotic space exploration that replace materials that would otherwise be shipped from Earth.” Water has been highlighted by many in the space community as a credible solution for affordable/sustainable exploration. Water can be extracted from the Moon, C-class Near Earth Objects (NEOs), surface of Mars and Martian Moons Phobos and Deimos and from the surface of icy, rugged terrains of Ocean Worlds. However, use of water for propulsion faces some important technological barriers. A technique to use water as a propellant is to electrolyze it into hydrogen and oxygen that is then pulsedetonated. High-efficiency electrolysis requires use of platinum-catalyst based fuel cells. Even trace elements of sulfur and carbon monoxide found on planetary bodies can poison these cells making them unusable. In this work, we develop steam-based propulsion that avoids the technological barriers of electrolyzing impure water as propellant. Using a solar concentrator, heat is used to extract the water which is then condensed as a liquid and stored. Steam is then formed using the solar thermal reflectors to concentrate the light into a nanoparticle- water mix. This solar thermal heating (STH) process converts 80 to 99% of the incoming light into heat. In theory, water can be heated to 1000 K to 3000K with a resulting Isp from 190s to 320s. This propulsion system can offer higher thrust than current electrical propulsion methods and represents a high delta-v solution for small spacecrafts. A further understanding of the concentration system, implications for GNC and the heat transfer process in the nanofluid is presented in this work.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationGuidance, Navigation, and Control, 2019
EditorsHeidi E. Hallowell
PublisherUnivelt Inc.
Number of pages12
ISBN (Print)9780877036616
StatePublished - 2019
Event42nd AAS Rocky Mountain Section Guidance and Control Conference, 2019 - Breckenridge, United States
Duration: Jan 31 2019Feb 6 2019

Publication series

NameAdvances in the Astronautical Sciences
ISSN (Print)0065-3438


Conference42nd AAS Rocky Mountain Section Guidance and Control Conference, 2019
Country/TerritoryUnited States

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Space and Planetary Science


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