Space NASA green spacecraft fuel

Published on March 29th, 2016 | by Tina Casey

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NASA’s New ‘Green’ Space Fuel Ready For Launch

March 29th, 2016 by  

NASA has been tinkering around with a new ‘green’ propulsion system for space travel since 2012, when it launched the $45 million Green Propellant Infusion Mission. The initiative is aimed at replacing a highly toxic and corrosive rocket propellant with something kinder and gentler. They’ve been hammering away at it without much fanfare for three years, but you’re probably going to hear a lot more about it later this week after the new system gets a media preview on March 31 at Ball Aerospace & Technologies in Boulder, Colorado.

NASA green spacecraft fuel

Green Space Travel from NASA

CleanTechnica spotted the GPIM initiative in 2013 when it took form between NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the US Air Force, working with Ball Aerospace and Aerojet Rocketdyne (so yes, #thanksobama for this new green fuel).

The idea was to find an alternative to the widely used rocket and spacecraft fuel hydrazine. It’s a powerful fuel and it stores well, but it’s also nasty stuff, and it involves prep time that slows down ground operations considerably.

Back in August 2013, NASA’s Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program, described the impact of a “revolutionary” green propellant on future space travel:

High performance green propellant has the potential to revolutionize how we travel to, from and in space…An effective green rocket fuel would dramatically reduce the cost and time for preparing and launching space missions while decreasing pollution and harm to our environment.

The partnership has focused on a hydrazine substitute based on ammonium nitrate, called Hydroxyl Ammonium Nitrate (HAN) fuel/oxidizer blend or AF-M315E for short, which was developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory headquartered at Edwards Air Force Base.

The new substitute has two outstanding features that are attractive for space travel. It has a higher density than hydrazine, translating into more efficient storage space, and it also has a lower freezing temperature.

The relatively low toxicity of AF-M315E translates into a less complicated handling process, which NASA anticipates will cut launch costs significantly by reducing launch times.

The reduced toxicity is also expected to take a significant chunk out of the cost of space travel by simplifying the design and fabrication of space craft.

Green Space Travel Coming Soon…

In its preview announcement for the new green fuel, NASA provides some additional detail:

More of the new propellant can be stored in propellant tanks of the same volume, resulting in a 50-percent increase in spacecraft maneuvering capability for a given volume. It also has a lower freezing point than hydrazine, requiring less spacecraft power to maintain the propellant temperature. These characteristics make it ideal for a wide range of emerging small, deep space satellite missions.

After initial testing on demonstration modules, the new fuel will get its first real shakedown cruise in a compact Ball Aerospace BCP-100 “smallsat.” Launch will be some time early next year, with a payload that will enable the GPIM team to put the satellite through a series of orbital maneuvers designed to test performance of the propellant in actual conditions.

If all goes well, the new fuel will be ready for the commercial market. One likely candidate is Elon Musk’s SpaceX program, and those of you dreaming of a Tesla-SpaceX mashup will have something more to dream upon.

Shoutout to Alabama, by the way. Though the media preview is in Colorado and the fuel was developed in California, the GPIM program is headquartered at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

…To A Spaceport Near You

NASA has high hopes for the new propellant. Aside from outperforming hydrazine on the things that matter for more efficient space travel, a less toxic propellant means that launch sites could be located throughout the US:

The new green propellant will be an enabling technology for commercial spaceports operating across the United States. With the green propellant, launch vehicle and spacecraft fuel loading will be safer, faster and much less costly. The “shirt sleeve” operational environment GPIM offers will change ground processing time from weeks to days.

We’re guessing those new spaceports won’t be quite as common as the local airstrip, but after next year you might want to keep an eye on your local planning board to see what’s coming down the pike.

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Image: via Ball Aerospace.


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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • I’m a little confused as well. If this outperforms hydrazine, why isn’t it already in use? The cooler freezing point might be a benefit in space, but loading it up on the ground is likely more difficult. The longer it hangs around in hot temperatures, the more it evaporates and needs to be topped up. It must be difficult to refuel satellites in fairings with those fuels.

    Fun fact: Most space agencies only use hydrazine for satellites, and either H2 + O2 or RP1 + O2 for first stages. Other than China. China don’t give AF and they use hydrazine for their massive first stages. They also come down in populated areas beside roads and get checked out by local farmers. Real intelligent.

  • Ross

    I think this is for the maneuvering thrusters for spacecraft already in orbit with perhaps some use for it in some upper rocket stages. The boost and orbital stages mainly use less toxic fuel like LH2/LOX (producing water), RP-1(refined kerosene)/LOX, and the solid rocket booster fuel is not as bad as Hydrazine.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomethylhydrazine

  • Andy

    Interesting. I would think NASA would prioritize performance above all else. Space isn’t a good place to be making compromises.

  • JamesWimberley

    Rocket fuel is by definition hairy stuff. For a splendid riff on the subject, try Charles Stross’ short story A Tall Tail (link, no paywall). Warning: do not read while ingesting coffee, gin or hydrazine.

  • Freddy D

    Did I miss something? The whole point of the article was about reducing environmental damage yet nothing in the article about how hydrazine pollutes or how much it pollutes versus the emissions of the new material.

    • Joshua Snider

      As far as emissions go, switching away from hydrazine isn’t much of a difference. The difference is that hydrazine is a very hazardous chemical and needs special care that the alternative presented in the article doesn’t need.

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