MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WBOY) — Two West Virginia University researchers are taking steps to solve the issue of fueling space travel.

According to WVU Today, Oleg D. Jefimenko professor of physics and astronomy Earl Scime and research assistant professor Thomas Steinberger of the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences have been looking into alternate fuel sources for spacecraft and satellite propulsion systems, fueled by a $748,000 grant from NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

Earl Scime, Oleg D. Jefimenko professor of physics and astronomy, WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences (WVU Photo)

Xenon-powered plasma thrusters are commonly used in spacefaring propulsion systems. Xenon is an inert gas and is often extracted from Earth’s atmosphere.

“It’s a costly process,” Scime said. “It’s usually done as a byproduct of steel manufacturing, and one of the largest distillation plants in the world for producing xenon is in Mariupol, Ukraine, which has been destroyed. A large fraction of the world’s xenon supply has dried up and it’s in very short supply.”

Krypton and argon have been used as alternatives, though both have their issues. And so, Scime and Steinberger set their eyes on solid iodine, which the research team anticipates will be a three-year project.

“It has some huge advantages,” Steinberger said. “You can pack it into a small volume in a spacecraft. You don’t need high pressure tanks or gas handling. A few years ago, we took an interest in iodine, got some apparatus to make iodine plasmas from the U.S. Air Force and we developed a diagnostic to measure the flow of iodine ions. Now we’re looking to the next step.”

Thomas Steinberger, research assistant professor, plasma and space physics, WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences (WVU Photo)

Through the use of laser spectroscopy, Scime’s team developed “the world’s first way to measure the speed of ionized iodine out of a thruster,” WVU Today said.

However, the technology is far from perfect. Iodine is messy and can cause respiratory problems in large test chambers, so Scime and Steinberger have chosen to work on building a smaller, simpler chamber.

“We’re building iodine-based thrusters,” Scime said. “So, in 20 years, we’d expect to see a lot of iodine propulsion systems on satellites, and maybe even on long duration missions to Mars. Hopefully we’ll see these kinds of thrusters in widespread use. And we would be part of the process of making them work well.”

Melanie Page, director of the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium/NASA EPSCoR and associate vice president for creative and scholarly activity at the WVU Research Office said. “This is why the EPSCoR program is so vital — it begins to level the playing field with research infrastructure development so that the brilliant scientists from West Virginia can compete fairly for federal research funds.”