Nasa will test a non-toxic, rosé-coloured fuel and compatible propulsion system in space that could be used for missions to the Moon and other places in the future.
The system will be tested for the first time with the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), which is set to be launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket this month.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Edwards Air Force Base in California, US, has developed the ‘green’ fuel and the objective of the mission is to demonstrate the features of the propellant.
Spacecraft currently use the highly toxic fuel hydrazine as a propellant. However, the ‘green’ fuel blends hydroxyl ammonium nitrate with an oxidiser that allows it to burn, creating an alternative to hydrazine.
Even though hydrazine is commonly used in spacecraft, it is highly toxic to humans. Those handling hydrazine will be required to follow safety precautions such as wearing protective suits, thick rubber gloves and oxygen tanks.
On the contrary, GPIM requires fewer handling restrictions, cutting down the time taken to prepare for launch.
Colorado-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies leads the Nasa technology demonstration mission.
Ball Aerospace GPIM principal investigator Christopher McLean said: “Spacecraft could be fueled during manufacturing, simplifying processing at the launch facility, resulting in cost savings.”
The ‘green’ propellant is claimed to be denser than hydrazine and offers 50% better performance, enabling spacecraft to travel farther or operate for a longer duration with less propellant onboard.
Based in Redmond, Washington, Aerojet Rocketdyne has designed, built and tested the GPIM propulsion system, which comprises a propellant tank and five 1-Newton thrusters to carry the non-toxic fuel.
“Spacecraft could be fueled during manufacturing, simplifying processing at the launch facility.”
GPIM uses thrusters that are fired in various scenarios to test the performance and reliability of the engine. Orbit lowering and spacecraft pointing are among the planned manoeuvres.
A technology demonstration mission, GPIM has been made possible by Nasa’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and includes specialists from Nasa, Ball Aerospace, Aerojet Rocketdyne and AFRL.
GPIM is one of the satellites being launched as part of the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission, managed by the US Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.