Instead of toxic hydrazine, future space missions could use a less toxic propellant, or fuel, and the compatible technologies designed to go along with it, NASA has found.
The US space agency last year launched the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) to test the fuel and compatible propulsion system in space for the first time.
This mission, which is now nearing completion, has proved that the “green” propellant and propulsion system work as intended, demonstrating both are practical options for future missions, NASA said on Thursday.
“This is the first time in 50 years NASA tested a new, high-performing monopropellant in space,” Tim Smith, GPIM Mission Manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in a statement.
“It has the potential to supplement or even replace hydrazine, which spacecraft have used since the 1960s.”
The GPIM mission set out to test a monopropellant — a chemical propellant that can burn by itself without a separate oxidizer — called Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-Toxic (ASCENT).
The US Air Force Research Laboratory invented the propellant at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
GPIM’s effective demonstration of the propellant paved the way for NASA’s acceptance of the new fuel in new missions.
The next NASA mission to use this less toxic will be Lunar Flashlight.
The small spacecraft, which aims to provide clear-cut information about the presence of water deposits inside craters, will launch as a secondary payload on Artemis I, the first integrated flight test of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
Despite being pink in colour, ASCENT is considered “green” for its significantly reduced toxicity compared to hydrazine, which requires protective suits and rigorous propellant loading processing procedures.
ASCENT will allow spacecraft to travel farther or operate longer with less propellant in their tank, given its higher performance, NASA said.
The GPIM mission is now approaching completion, and the spacecraft has started a series of deorbit burns.
Approximately seven burns will lower the orbit to about 180 kilometres and deplete the propellant tank.
The small spacecraft will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere upon reentry, anticipated in late September.