A non-toxic liquid of pink color could fuel the future of space travel.
NASA will test high-performance "green" material as well as a compatible thruster system in space this month with the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), slated for launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the propellant combines hydroxyl ammonium nitrate with an oxidant, allowing it to burn and create an alternative to hydrazine, commonly used in modern spacecraft.
Although naval buses adore hydrazine (it was first employed as a component of rocket fuels during World War II), the inorganic compound is highly toxic to humans.
Exposure can range from skin irritation or temporary blindness to convulsions or coma, not to mention damage to organs of the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Handling the clear liquid requires strict safety precautions: protective clothing, thick rubber gloves, oxygen tanks.
So it makes sense that NASA wants to replace it with something more friendly.
GPIM, the agency said, promises fewer handling restrictions, helping to reduce pre-launch readiness time.
"The spacecraft could be fueled during manufacturing, streamlining processing at the launch facility, resulting in cost savings," said Christopher McLean, GPIM's principal investigator at Ball Aerospace, which is leading the demonstration technology mission.
Thicker than hydrazine, this new green propeller delivers nearly 50% better performance (the equivalent of getting 50% more miles per gallon in your car). This means that spacecraft can travel farther and operate more with less fuel on board.
The technology, according to NASA, is ideal for small and cubic satellites builders, who have modest budgets and limited capacity; it also has a place among large spacecraft such as the GPIM.
In the future, Aerojet Rocketdyne, maker of Redmond, plans to develop a series of other thrust level propulsion systems to utilize the high performance green propellant.
"We see interest in using green propellant throughout the space industry," said Fred Wilson, Aerojet's director of business development, in a statement. "The trend is for smaller and smaller satellites, to do more mission in a small package."
There is potential for this technology to be used for a variety of lunar missions within NASA's new Artemis program, the agency said. But first, it must be tested in space.
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