NASA plans to introduce the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), a safe and clean alternative to the toxic satellite fuel hydrazine. The green propellant will be first introduced on a test flight in 2015.
During a briefing with aerospace industry officials held in Colorado earlier this week, the space agency announced the successful completion of the initial testing of the green fuel. With 50% better performance, the new alternative shows all necessary characteristics that make it suitable to power Earth-orbiting satellites and deep space missions.
For years, all spacecrafts have been powered by the toxic and highly flammable hydrazine. Although very efficient, the fuel is well known for its harmful effects when it is inhaled or it gets into contact with skin, making the handling process extremely dangerous and difficult.
This is also one of the reasons why the agency decided to take up the initiative of finding a green alternative. One of the biggest advantages of the new rocket fuel, M315E, is that it is less harmful than caffeine, and can be stored in glass jars on board. In addition, it evaporates much slower and requires higher temperatures, which prevent it from being dangerously flammable. In the process of burning, instead of toxic emissions, the fuel gives off water vapor, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, thanks to the hydroxyl ammonium nitrate- the main ingredient of the fuel.
Besides being greener and much more efficient, M315E does not require special pre-processing on the ground, which will cut down the preparation time and consequently the cost of launching a spacecraft.
Currently, NASA‘s Space Technology Mission Directorate is funding the development of a propulsion system to handle the fuel. The main company involved in the project is Ball Aerospace, who work in close collaboration with the subcontractor Aerojet Rocketdyne and NASA scientists.
After demonstrating that the green fuel can burn continuously for 11 hours, the team moved on to polishing the design. If the propulsion system passes the critical review by the end of the year, it will be used on the Ball Configurable Platform 100 spacecraft bus, scheduled to launch in early 2015.
Ball is in charge of developing the software, which will fly the spacecraft, Aeroject Rocketdyne will provide the technology, while Edwards Air Force Research Laboratory contributes all propellant needed for the upcoming mission. The total budget comes to about $42.3 million.
If the mission is successful, NASA will have the opportunity to fulfill its deep-space exploration goals. The agency states that the efficient fuel is only one of the many green initiatives they plan to undertake. The agency is also working on integrating solar sails that harness energy directly from the sun, suppressing the overall need of propellant fuel.