Safe Rocket Fuel Could Have Military Applications

By Steff Thomas
NASA is testing a green fuel that could cut mission costs and potentially raise performance by 50 percent, a program official said.

Ball Aerospace — a Colorado-based company specializing in the development of space technology — joined NASA to run the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), a program focused on developing an environmentally safe fuel that could replace the hydrazine currently used in spacecraft.

If verified as a valid alternative, this new propellant could be used not only in spacecraft, but also in military vehicles that operate on hydrazine, said Roger Myers, executive director of Aerojet Rocketdyne, a partner in the program.

Hydrazine is highly toxic and can induce negative side effects when inhaled or through skin contact. The new propellant, known as AF-M315E, could decrease the danger of working with rocket fuel, said Christopher McLean, GPIM principal investigator from Ball Aerospace.

“If you get that stuff [AF-M315E] on your hands, you can wash it off and it’s not going to kill you,” McLean said at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

The Air Force, NASA, Defense Department and commercial companies could benefit from switching to a safer fuel such as the green propellant, Myers said. These organizations could cut costs in the long run because it is less toxic, and therefore less likely to harm employees.

The propellant is a denser fuel that is easier to handle, store and transport. It potentially could have a shorter launch processing time than hydrazine, which also would cut costs, Myers said.

Current test results limit use of the fuel to shorter missions than those powered by hydrazine, Myers said. “We do have some work to do, but there are a large number of missions for which we have ample life [with the greener fuel].”

The team in recent months conducted the propellant’s first thruster pulsing test, which will provide input for the design phase of the program, Myers said.

A practice launch is scheduled for late 2015, and the results will determine if the AF-M315E propellant can efficiently replace the hydrazine fuel in future space missions and other aircraft.

NASA officials recognize that the team has to convince industry that the new propellant is a suitable replacement for hydrazine, said Michael Gazarik, associate administrator of NASA’s space technology mission directorate.

“They need to be comfortable in the risk that it works, that it’s safe and it meets the performance specs,” he said.

Topics: Business Trends, Energy, Alternative Energy, Science and Engineering Technology

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