WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As access to space gets cheaper we’re sending more rockets up today than ever before, and the fuel they use has a massive environmental impact.
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When I talk about Elon Musk’s vision for the future of global travel during my transportation keynotes where everyone travels around the Earth in under half an hour at Mach 27 in rockets starting 2024 one of the first questions I get asked is “but is it green?” and the answer, for now at least, is no mixed with the occasional “obviously not.”
The pressure to “go green” is being felt, and rightly so, by every industry now, from the aviation industry where flights across the Atlantic can now be powered using biofuels, rather than more harmful aviation fuel, to the shipping industry where the world’s first electric cargo ship marked the beginning of the end for one of the world’s most polluting fuels – sulphurous, toxic bunker fuel. Now though, rockets too are getting the green fuel treatment and the green movement will soon leave our horizon and burst into space.
NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) is currently scheduled to launch next week on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket as part of a technology-testing mission dubbed STP-2. GPIM, a small, box-shaped spacecraft powered by green technology, will test out a low-toxicity propellant in space for the first time, according to NASA. The clean propellant, a hydroxyl ammonium nitrate fuel/oxidizer mix called AF-M315E, will serve as an alternative to hydrazine, a highly toxic compound used in rocket fuel to power satellites and spacecraft.
“It’s important that we develop technology that increases protections for launch personnel and the environment, and that has the potential to reduce costs,” Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
GPIM, which cost NASA a total of $65 million, has been in the works for years now and passed its first thruster pulsing test in 2013. This month marks another step toward the agency’s goal of providing a sustainable and efficient alternative fuel for spaceflight.
Right now, most spacecraft run on hydrazine, but NASA’s new fuel is nearly 50 percent more efficient and promises longer missions that use less propellant.
The fuel is also higher in density, meaning that more of it can be stored in less space, and it has a lower freezing point, so requires less spacecraft power to maintain its temperature, according to NASA. And compared with hydrazine, the fuel is much safer for humans too.
“It’s pretty benign, and we think that it can be loaded at universities or other environments where you’re not typically doing propellant-loading operations,” Dayna Ise, the technology demonstration missions program executive in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said during a media call. “Oh, and you can send it through FedEx, so it’s safe enough to be FedExe’d around the country.”
NASA, Ball Aerospace, a spacecraft manufacturer in Colorado, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, who are now helping Lockheed Martin build the world’s first unmanned SR-72 hypersonic reconnaissance aircraft. Working together to develop the propulsion system for the new fuel that hopefully will power a cleaner greener space race.