Like the auto industry, space flight is going green by looking for new and sustainable fuel sources. Today, it is eying fuel options that are safer to handle than the highly toxic fuel, hydrazine. Last week, Bell Aerospace officially commissioned NASA's Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) and begun on-orbit testing of a non-toxic, high-performance propellant. The mission launched on June 25, 2019 at 2:30 a.m. EDT on board a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

"This mission has been an excellent example of an industry-led team involving multiple NASA centers, the Air Force and industry partners to test this new high-performance fuel using a Ball small satellite," said Dr. Makenzie Lystrup, vice president and general manager, Civil Space, at Ball Aerospace.

The new green propellant will be an enabling technology for commercial spaceports operating across the United States, according to NASA.

The green propellant makes fuel loading safer, cheaper, more efficient and much less costly. The mission hopes to shorten ground processing time from weeks to days, which in turn reduces costs, and to simplify building and operating satellites. “The space technology infusion mission also strives to optimize performance in new hardware, system and power solutions while ensuring the best value for investment and the safest space missions possible,” NASA claimed.

Ball Aerospace designed and built the Ball Configurable Platform (BCP) small satellite, which contains NASA's first opportunity to demonstrate the practical capabilities of a "green" propellant and propulsion system in orbit. The GPIM project will demonstrate the practical capabilities of this Hydroxyl Ammonium Nitrate fuel/oxidizer blend, which reduces toxicity levels compared to hydrazine and is easier and safer to store and handle. The alternative to conventional chemical propulsion systems is called AF-M315E and was developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory. “AF-M315E is expected to improve overall vehicle performance,” NASA said. “It boasts a higher density than hydrazine, meaning more of it can be stored in containers of the same volume. In addition, it delivers a higher specific impulse, or thrust delivered per given quantity of fuel, and has a lower freezing point, requiring less spacecraft power to maintain its temperature.”

GPIM is part of NASA's Technology Demonstration Missions program within the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). Ball Aerospace’s Christopher McLean serves as the principal investigator for the program. Meanwhile, thrusters designed and built by Aerojet Rocketdyne provide propulsion for the spacecraft.

"The successful commissioning of our thrusters and propulsion system is a positive step toward fully qualifying our green propulsion system in space," said Joe Cassady, executive director of space at Aerojet Rocketdyne. "This technology will enable propulsive capabilities for a new generation of small satellites, including new mission capabilities."

The program will test the thruster capabilities by verifying the propulsion subsystem, propellant performance, thruster performance, and spacecraft attitude control performance over the first three months. Testing of secondary payloads will occur over the remaining time in the 13-month testing period.

Ball Aerospace, as the prime contractor, is tasked with system engineering; flight thruster performance verification; ground and flight data review; spacecraft bus; assembly, integration and test; and launch and flight support. At the end, the project will present the fuel, as well as compatible tanks, valves and thrusters, for use by NASA and for commercial spaceflight applications.

The small satellite, which is about the size of a mini refrigerator, was built in just 46 days. Currently, two other BCP small satellites are also on orbit: STPSat-2, which launched in November 2010, and STPSat-3, which launched in November 2013. The two STP satellites were built for the U.S. Air Force Space Test Program's Standard Interface Vehicle (STP-SIV) project, Ball said.