NASA Trials Advanced Fuel Gauge Technology on Moon Lander

Managing fuel in space is a complex task due to the microgravity environment that causes fuel to float around in a tank instead of settling at the bottom, as it does on Earth. This makes estimation of remaining fuel a significant challenge, impacting the planning and execution of space missions.

To address this issue, NASA Glenn has pioneered a novel fuel gauge technology, known as the Radio Frequency Mass Gauge (RFMG) payload. The RFMG technology works by estimating the available amount of propellant in a tank, although it doesn’t provide an exact measurement. It operates by utilizing radio waves and antennae inside the tank to gauge the amount of propellant. The RFMG sends radio signals through the tank and then analyzes the reflection of these signals off the fuel, which enables it to determine the volume and mass of the propellant.

The RFMG technology will be demonstrated on an upcoming lunar mission as part of the Intuitive Machines IM-1 delivery, under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. The CLPS program facilitates American companies to deliver scientific, exploration, and technological payloads to lunar surface and orbit.

RFMG has a significant role to play in future long-duration missions that will depend on spacecraft powered by cryogenic propellants such as liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen, or liquid methane. These fuels, while highly efficient, pose storage challenges as they tend to evaporate quickly even at low temperatures.

The RFMG has undergone small-scale testing on the International Space Station and during parabolic flights. However, the upcoming lunar mission will mark the first long-duration RFMG testing on a standalone spacecraft, the Nova-C lunar lander. The data obtained from this mission could corroborate the simulations conducted on Earth and serve as a pivotal step in the development of this technology.

Lauren Ameen, deputy manager for the Cryogenic Fluid Management Portfolio Project Office at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, emphasized the criticality of this mission, noting that this is the first time such data for RFMG will be obtained.

Accurate fuel measurement on spacecraft is critical for resource optimization as NASA progresses towards its objective of sending humans to the Moon through the Artemis program. The RFMG technology represents a significant advancement in space fuel management, offering potential solutions to the challenges of fuel storage and measurement in microgravity environments.

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