News | Jun 24, 2019

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch tonight, Air Force payload includes ‘green’ hydrazine replacement

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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 in the world and will carry the Green Propellant Infusion Mission on the U.S. Air Force’s STP-2 mission tonight.

SpaceX via WikiMedia

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —  SpaceX’s enormous Falcon Heavy rocket is prepped for its historic flight tonight.

Resting now atop NASA’s Pad 39A, the giant will go up in a blaze of glory during a 4-hour window opening at 11:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Its mission for the U.S. Air Force is to carry up 24 satellites packed in its nose, releasing them into three different orbits around Earth. Among the satellites is the Green Propellant Infusion Mission spacecraft, which will test the new ASCENT (Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-toxic Propellant) developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Formerly known as AF-M315E, the new hydroxylammonium nitrate (HAN) monopropellant is a safer, more powerful replacement for Hydrazine, the traditional fuel used by the maneuvering thrusters of spacecraft.

While hydrazine is flammable, toxic, and requires the use of Self Contained Atmospheric Protective Ensemble (SCAPE) suits for handling operations, ASCENT propellant requires minimal Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as a lab coat and a splash guard for the face.

“The demonstration of a revolutionary green propellant for spacecraft propulsion is critical as we move toward space operations being the new normal,” said Dr. Shawn Phillips, chief of AFRL’s Rocket Propulsion Division.

After $30 million in AFRL R&D investments to mature AF-M315E from conception to space-rated thruster systems, starting tonight, its potential for commercial and Department of Defense use will undergo its final test.

Through technology transfer agreements, TechLink helps the Air Force Research Laboratory make its inventions available for commercial development.

Digital Solid State Propulsion, a small company in Reno, Nevada, secured a patent license agreement from the Air Force in 2018 so that the private company could make and sell ASCENT/AF-M315E to commercial space companies.