Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation is hard at work developing a demonstration vehicle for an alternative space flight fuel system that is more ‘green’; and what better place to do this then in Boulder, CO? As you can imagine, current rocket fuel, which is a hydrazine and complex bi-propellant system, is highly toxic, and so NASA has collaborated with Ball Aerospace and others on their Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) to develop a more eco-friendly fuel alternative.
The new green fuel system is a mix of Hydroxyl Ammonium Nitrate fuel and oxidizer, also called AF-M315E (hopefully a better name is in production as well!). The benefits of this new fuel extend beyond the environment as it is safer to handle with reduced toxicity levels, making it less volatile and thereby easier to transport and prepare, which in turn will reduce launch times and cost. With a higher density, AF-M315E provides almost 50% higher horsepower than conventional fuel systems. You get more bang for your buck as well, as more thrust using the equivalent amount of fuel gives a higher specific impulse. A lower freezing point also allows the satellite to expend less energy maintaining the fuel’s ideal temperature.
This new fuel is part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) which is producing new technology that will mark a gargantuan shift in satellites and spacecrafts. With new fuel comes new systems to handle an entirely different kind of propulsion. While the Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base in California developed the ground breaking fuel, Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Washington forged an entirely new catalyst technology. Once the fuel is injected into the catalyst, it converts to a gas that is expelled from the engine, creating thrust. The fabrication of new thrusters for this system is underway at a special Aeroject Rocketdyne lab, consisting of one main 22-newton thruster and four smaller 1-newton thrusters. Once assembled on GPIM and in orbit, these thrusters will allow the satellite to maneuver in space, change orbit as well as perform point and hold tests.
Scheduled for launch in 2016, the GPIM smallsat will test the new fuel system during its year-long mission. The demonstration mission will conduct orbital maneuvers to test the fuel’s efficiency and performance as it moves through common satellite adjustments. If successful, AF-M315E will be presented as a viable alternative to existing fuel systems for similar space applications.