NASA to test 'green' fuel it hopes will replace 'toxic' kind used today

Milton McKay, a now-retired member of the Air Force Reasearch Laboratory Aerospace Systems Directorate Propellants Branch, handles a sample of AF-M315E, a green alternative to hydrazine.


By BENJAMIN RAVEN | MLive.com, Walker, Mich. | Published: June 11, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — NASA says that it will test a high-performance "green" fuel developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory for the very first time on a rocket launch later this month. 

The U.S. space agency says this green fuel is comprised of "hydroxyl ammonium nitrate with an oxidizer that allows it to burn, creating an alternative to hydrazine, the highly toxic fuel commonly used by spacecraft today."  

NASA also believes there is potential for this green fuel to play a part in future Artemis program missions, but that it must be first demonstrated in space before this is to be considered. 

While spacecraft are said to "love hydrazine," it's toxic to humans and requires what are described as "strict safety precautions — protective suits, thick rubber gloves and oxygen tanks" to handle/use it.

This new green fuel will be tested as part of the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), which the space agency says could represent an alternative to the "highly toxic" hydrazine commonly used on spacecraft today.

"Spacecraft could be fueled during manufacturing, simplifying processing at the launch facility, resulting in cost savings," Christopher McLean, principal investigator for the Green Propellant Infusion Mission, said in a news release.

"GPIM has the potential to inspire new ideas and new missions."

The propellant is described as non-toxic and rose-colored that could "fuel the future in space and propel missions to the moon or other worlds." NASA says the test will occur on aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket "this month."

It is believed that this fuel is denser than hydrazine and offers about 50 percent better performance, which equates to "50 percent more miles per gallon on your car."

NASA believes GPIM could lead to spacecraft traveling further into space with less fuel onboard.

NASA says that engineers had to develop new hardware including new thrusters, tanks, filters and valves just to use the new propellant. GPIM is said to use thrusters that fire in "different scenarios" to test its performance and reliability.

The GPIM's propulsion system was designed, built and tested by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Washington.

Ball Aerospace engineers perform final checks before the spacecraft shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. GPIM is one of four unique NASA Space Test Program-2 (STP-2).

"If it weren’t for the initial investment and inherent risk of doing something for the first time, this technology would likely already be in space," Dayna Ise, an executive with the space agency's Technology Demonstration Missions program, said in the release.

"NASA stepped up to fund it because we see the value and potential for this technology to propel spaceflight forward."

The space agency says that GPIM is just one of 20 satellites launching as part of the U.S. Department of Defense's Space Test Program-2, which the Air Force and Missile Systems Center manage.

Another potential reason for the test of this fuel is the existence of the Artemis program that aims to return humans to the moon's surface by 2024, establish a sustainable lunar presence by 2028 and put the first astronaut on Mars in the 2030s.

The space agency says there is "potential" for this green fuel to play a part in these future missions, but that it must be first demonstrated in space.

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