The Jackson Clarion Ledger reported on October 23, 2013 that SpaceX, a commercial rocket company, will test a methane burning rocket engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. NASA has contributed $600,000 and the state of Mississippi has chipped in $500,000 to upgrade a rocket engine test stand for the project.
The partnership is part of a wider NASA initiative to attract private business to use some of its facilities. While the SpaceX deal will create a handful of jobs, it is hoped that it will be the first of many companies to use Stennis facilities to test rocket engines.
Rockets using methane as a fuel has certain advantages over more traditional propellants such as liquid hydrogen or kerosene. It can be stored at more manageable temperatures and is less dangerous to handle. Methane can also be manufactured on other worlds using local resources. On Mars, for example, a process can be used combining hydrogen and local carbon dioxide to create methane and water.
The one disadvantage of methane as a rocket fuel is that it is harder to ignite than the more traditional propellants. Nevertheless methane burning engines seem to be well on their way to being developed for space transportation systems.