Wait, What?! A Space Startup Wants to Use Toxic Mercury as Spacecraft Fuel

Tuesday, 27 November 2018 - 10:53AM
Technology
NASA
Tuesday, 27 November 2018 - 10:53AM
Wait, What?! A Space Startup Wants to Use Toxic Mercury as Spacecraft Fuel
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NASA/Chris Lynch
Besides increasingly rare interactions with old-school thermometers, most people's exposure to the chemical element mercury starts and stops with the periodic table, and that's probably for the best. The metallic liquid is highly toxic and many of its historic uses have been banned for safety reasons, which is why a plan by a company named Apollo Fusion has people concerned.

Bloomberg reports that the space company has designed propulsion systems that use mercury as fuel. This info comes from four anonymous insiders who signed non-disclosure agreements with Apollo Fusion, not from an official statement or press release issued by the startup. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to high levels of mercury or its compounds can cause blindness, nausea, vomiting, damage to the central nervous system, kidney damage, and a number of unpleasant effects for babies born to women exposed to the element, so you can see why burning it to launch satellites in the atmosphere above our heads may not be the best idea. "We don't comment on our proprietary technology due to competitive risks, either on innovations that we've built or things that we're testing," co-founder and chief executive officer Michael Cassidy told Bloomberg via email, adding that Apollo Fusion is "committed to maintaining a low impact on the environment." 

LinkedIn Corp. co-founder and Apollo Fusion investor/board member Reid Hoffman said in a statement that multiple technologies are being considered but that "no decisions have been made." The rules against using harmful substances in communications satellites are not as strict as they should be, but now that the public is aware of Apollo Fusion's plans they may find themselves under more watchful eyes. Will that dissuade that company from moving forward with its mercury fuel technology? We hope so.

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