News | Mar 13, 2018

As NASA in-orbit test nears, Nevada company licenses Air Force’s ‘green’ rocket fuel

With assistance from TechLink, the Air Force Research Laboratory transfers advanced rocket fuel technology to small business, which immediately began supplying space agencies

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 6, 2018. The rocket is the most powerful rocket in the world and will soon carry the Green Propellant Infusion Mission on the U.S. Air Force’s STP-2 mission. (SpaceX via WikiMedia)

With SpaceX’s successful Falcon Heavy test launch completed in early February, a NASA satellite powered by a new nontoxic propellant invented at the Air Force Research Laboratory nears its first trip around the Earth.

According to a spokeswoman for NASA, the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) will be put into orbit this year as part of the U.S. Air Force’s STP-2 Mission. The small satellite will ride into space aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. An exact launch date has yet to be picked, but SpaceX has offered a 60-day launch window that opens on June 13.

“The mission’s basic operational phase will be completed in a little over a year (13-14 months),” said NASA spokeswoman Shannon Ridinger in an email to TechLink. “The GPIM payload will fly to space aboard a Ball compact small satellite. During the test flight, researchers will conduct orbital maneuvers to demonstrate the performance of the thrusters/propellant during attitude control maneuvers and orbit lowering.”

The fuel at the heart of the GPIM mission is AF-M315E, a relatively safer and more powerful alternative to hydrazine, a volatile and cancer-causing rocket fuel used in critical operations since the 1950s.

“Once proven in flight, the project will present AF-M315E–and compatible tanks, valves, and thrusters–to NASA and the commercial spaceflight industry as a viable, effective solution for future green propellant-based mission applications,” Ridinger said.

Digital Solid State Propulsion, a small company in Reno, Nevada, can’t wait. The firm has experience producing similar hydroxylammonium nitrate (HAN)-based propellants, and recently negotiated a patent license agreement for AF-M315E.

“Our business already revolves around HAN-based propellants, so we already have the expertise in handling and dealing with compatibility concerns,” said Dr. Wayne Sawka, owner of Digital Solid State Propulsion. “We already had much of the necessary equipment for processing.”

Under the patent license agreement, the Nevada company can produce and sell the propellant to the fast-growing commercial spaceflight and satellite industries and has already filled orders for NASA and the Air Force.

The GPIM spacecraft passed functional and environmental testing of its systems and software in 2016. It was scheduled for launch as part of the Air Force’s STP-2 mission in early 2017, but SpaceX’s delay in the final development of the Falcon Heavy put the mission on pause.

AF-M315E offers higher performance and is safer to handle and easier on the environment than traditional chemical fuels such as hydrazine currently used in spacecraft thrusters, according to the Air Force. It also requires fewer handling restrictions and has potentially shorter launch processing times, resulting in lowered production costs.

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.

“This is a huge step for AF-M315E transition and also a segue into commercialization of future energetic ionic liquids,” said Dr. Shawn Phillips, chief of the Air Force’s Rocket Propulsion Division.

TechLink Editor Troy Carter can be reached at troy.carter@montana.edu or 406-994-7798.

Headshot Image of Joan Wu-Singel, CLP

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