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Petroleum in space? Ain’t that a gas! Part 6

By J.K. Obatala
15 September 2016   |   4:51 am
Speaking to NASA’s Patrick Barry, Tramel explained that, while the gas is scarce on Mars, carbon dioxide—which is abundant—could be mixed with hydrogen and heated, to produce methane and water.


The presence of subsurface hydrocarbons on Mars may be open to question: But the strategic importance of extraterrestrial petroleum is not.

Once again, though, the strategic value of hydrocarbons in space is derived from their chemistry and accessibility—and is unrelated to the liquidity of oil and gas on Earth.

Terrestrial petroleum is doomed: Destined to be displaced, when hydrogen fuel cells, nuclear fusion reactors and Moon-based solar collectors kick in, possibly within two generations.

Yet even as the Earthly reign of hydrocarbons end, a new petroleum era is opening in space—where explorers and colonizers are planning uses, both for the molecule and its atomic components.

In early 2007, for instance, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) tested a methane-powered rocket engine, in a U.S. desert.

“The key attraction for methane,” observed MSFC project manager, Terri Tramel, “is that it exists or can be made on many worlds that NASA might want to visit someday, including Mars”.

Speaking to NASA’s Patrick Barry, Tramel explained that, while the gas is scarce on Mars, carbon dioxide—which is abundant—could be mixed with hydrogen and heated, to produce methane and water.

The further out one goes from Earth, the easier methane is to come by. “Titan,” Tramel noted, “is dotted with lakes and rivers of methane and other hydrocarbons that could one day serve as fuel depots”.

Explorers can obtain the hydrocarbon from Mars, Titan, Jupiter, and many other bodies. “With fuel waiting at the destination, a rocket leaving Earth wouldn’t have to carry so much propellant…”

“Hydrogen” and “carbon” atoms are key constituents, in all hydrocarbon molecules—the building blocks of various compounds, known generically as “petroleum”.

Currently, hydrogen and oxygen are the chemical workhorses of space industries, serving as the main propellant for most liquid fuel rockets.

All hydrocarbons, as well as water, contain hydrogen. The two compounds are plentiful on numerous solar system bodies—where they can be broken down, to extract hydrogen.

Hydrogen is useful, not only as a fuel for transport, heating and manufacturing in space, but it is also the main element in water, which colonists can make for consumption, cooking and hygiene.

“Carbon,” the other prime constituent of petroleum compounds, will be exceedingly useful in space-based chemical, medical and nanotechnology industries, including materials fabrication. This may seem far beyond the purview of policy makers, who tend to think and act as if there is no tomorrow—usually preferring “pragmatic,” ephemeral outcomes, to long-term stratagems.

Unless we quickly evolve away from this behavior pattern, and start to consider the unborn, there definitely will not be a tomorrow for Africans: Because the future lies in space. Nigerians must, therefore, be concerned with all space-related issues, especially those that impinge on the nation’s vital interests—now or in the future.

Accordingly, policy makers should take inspiration from the Bogota Declaration of 1976, challenging the “first come, first serve” principle, in the allocation of orbital lanes for communications satellites.

Pressure from Columbia and a caucus of tropical nations, prompted the International telecommunications Union to declare geostationary orbits a “limited natural resource”.

After Bogota, non-spacefaring nations started to request orbits for “paper satellites”—until they were able to launch a spacecraft.

Senator Robert A. Boroffice, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, thinks same logic should be applied to extraterrestrial land and resources.

“Even though Nigeria is not yet capable of manned spaceflight,” he opined to me, “we should try to secure, for posterity, a share of the land and resources in outer space”.