You’ll never look at space launches the same way again, or even backyard barbecues.
As hospitals become overburdened with COVID-19 patients, NASA has stated that a planned satellite launch would be postponed. The liquid oxygen required to power the flight is also required in hospitals, where physicians rely on it to keep COVID-19 patients alive.
Richard Craig, vice president of technical and regulatory relations for the Compressed Gas Group, an American trade association, believes that medical oxygen is a top concern for his members.
A scarcity of truck drivers with the necessary qualifications to deliver the oxygen is exacerbating the situation, and there are fears that subsequent rocket launches will be postponed as well.
Elon Musk, the creator of SpaceX, said the scarcity was “a danger, but not yet a limiting factor” on Twitter. This year, the firm plans to launch over 26 rockets.
What is the significance of this lag?
Landsat 9, whose launch has been postponed until at least September 23, is meant to photograph the Earth every eight days, monitoring land resources and giving important data to scientists.
While hospitals are important, Sven Bilén, a professor of engineering design, electrical engineering, and aerospace engineering at Penn State, pointed out that the space sector has an increased demand for oxygen. When people suggest we should focus on humanitarian issues and climate change on Earth, he adds, he doesn’t think they truly grasp what space has to offer. “Whether it’s through GPS signals or meteorological satellites that can follow storms, this is part of a system that improves life on Earth.”
What is the need for oxygen in rockets?
You oxidise something when you burn it. When you start a fire on Earth, it may suck oxygen from the air. However, when you climb higher in the atmosphere, there isn’t much oxygen left to draw from the air, according to Bilén. As a result, rockets require their own oxygen, and a lot of it, to function.
Liquid oxygen was utilised by Dr. Robert H. Goddard for his early, groundbreaking rocket engine testing in the 1920s, and it is still one of the most widely used rocket propellants today. Today, it’s employed in a variety of sectors, including chemical processing and blast furnaces.
The burning process, according to Bilén, is similar to those YouTube videos of individuals attempting to ignite a grill quicker and faster until they come up with the concept of pouring liquid oxygen on it. This accelerates the process, causing the entire item to burn to a crisp.
What is the process of producing liquid oxygen?
Engineers take air and chill it to cryogenic, or extremely low, temperatures to create liquid oxygen, often known as LOX in the industry. The liquid is then subjected to a distillation procedure, which may be repeated several times in order to separate the oxygen from the nitrogen and other air constituents.
Doctors put patients on oxygen in hospitals to boost the amount of oxygen they are inhaling above what occurs naturally in the air. “They don’t always require or desire 100 percent pure oxygen,” Bilén explains.
However, because it will be mixed with the rocket fuel in a chemical process, you require a somewhat pure oxygen for a rocket. As a result, the oxygen used in space launches must be extremely clean.
Oxygen is almost entirely employed as a gas in medicinal settings. The major reason liquid oxygen may come on site is that it allows for considerably more compact storage.
Liquid oxygen suppliers like Air Liquide, Praxair, and Airgas, like many other companies during the COVID-19 epidemic, may have to alter what they’re producing to meet the population’s present demands. “The difficulty is that there is only so much installed capacity for creating oxygen right now,” Bilén explains, “and there are now more consumers of it, particularly from a medical standpoint.”
What will take place next?
Bilén compares this to the big toilet paper crisis of 2020, when people began working from home and needed smaller rolls instead of industrial grade toilet paper. “The industry can’t turn on a dime,” he adds, “but they worked out the supply lines and found it out over time.”
He believes that the market will solve the problem by increasing oxygen production for those who need it the most. “It’s merely a hiccup,” he says, adding that if a true need exists, the government might utilise the Defense Production Act to order air product businesses to prioritise providing oxygen to hospitals above companies like SpaceX.