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NASA knows that liquid hydrogen fuel and lithium batteries can’t pack enough power to send ships and astronauts record distances from Earth. The agency announced today that it will offer up to $250,000 for battery alternatives it can use for Earth and deep-space missions.
The funds come as a part of NASA’s plans to invest over the next 18 months in technologies “that address several high priority challenges for achieving safe and affordable deep-space exploration,” associate administrator for space technology Michael Gazarik said in a statement. NASA expects to choose roughly four proposals divided into two categories: improvements on battery features like cell chemistry packaging and cell integration, and technologies that surpass lithium batteries’ theorized limits altogether.
The Department of Energy plans to pour $120 million into U.S. labs, universities and private companies between 2012 and 2017 for battery development. And while Argonne National Laboratory–the effort’s hub–has already unveiled several promising battery developments, the competition will also be an interesting opportunity for private firms to get involved. Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX, for example, have poured a lot of time and money into the lithium batteries that power their cars and rockets, and are undoubtedly looking into other technologies.
My colleague Katie Fehrenbacher wrote last month that there is already a rich range of alternatives to batteries for energy storage. There are compressed air batteries and systems that pump water to the top of a hill and let it run back down to generate electricity. Some make much more sense for Earth than space, but they all show that energy storage is not just on NASA’s mind.
Whatever battery alternatives are chosen will complement ongoing initiatives to reduce NASA’s reliance on liquid fuel, which is finite and expensive to carry into space. Some of its spacecraft already use solar energy. The Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, carries a tiny nuclear reactor in its belly. And there are already proposals to turn the moon and other planets into fueling outposts, where robots could mine resources and refuel docked spacecraft.