NASA is Going Green, in Space

From NASA

19-03528_-_gpim_final_day1

A small spacecraft the size of a mini-refrigerator is packed with cutting-edge “green” technology. NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission, or GPIM, will prove a sustainable and efficient approach to spaceflight. The mission will test a low toxicity propellant and compatible systems in space for the first time.  This technology could improve the performance of future missions by providing for longer mission durations using less propellant.

In this photo, a Ball Aerospace engineer performs final checks before the spacecraft shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch processing. GPIM is one of four unique NASA technology missions aboard the June 2019 SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch of the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Space Test Program-2 (STP-2).

Credits: Ball Aerospace

Last Updated: May 21, 2019

Editor: Yvette Smith

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49 thoughts on “NASA is Going Green, in Space

  1. How, pray tell, could “low toxicity propellant” matter in orbit? Unless there is a problem with failed launches, it strikes me as pure virtue signalling.

    • Whenever they use non-specific words, one should always be careful.

      Low? Low versus what?
      Lower than an asteroid?
      Lower than a planet?

      Toxicity? Less toxic than what?
      Less toxic than gamma radiation?
      Less toxic than the atmospheres of Venus? Neptune? Mars?
      Less toxic than unfiltered sunlight?
      Less toxic than methane or frozen CO&#8322?

      The real question they should be answering is whether the new propellent is more effective at all temperatures? Can the device carry sufficient quantities of propellent?

      Given the odd viewpoints of greens, low toxicity means slightly less toxic than selenium or beryllium salts.

    • How, pray tell, do we still fund an administration that was cover for sixties intercontinental missile development? At least they went someplace that no man had ever gone before back then.

    • The exhaust from virtually all current rockets is substantially less toxic than hydrogen cyanide or chlorine gas, even without “going green”.

      It certainly begs the question, what are toxic materials in outer-space toxic TO?
      Space-polar-bears? Space-Sparrows?

    • The lower toxicity is not necessarily for outer space as there is no atmosphere to breath nor contaminate. The lower toxicity is for ground handling safety concerns. I suspect the propellants they are referring to are the small thruster systems needed for orbital orientation and control. These are usually hypergolic chemicals Hydrazine (and its variants MMH) and Nitrogen tetroxide (NTO). These when merely mixed together will combust and expand. They require no ignition source. Just squirt the two liquids into a combustion chamber and … zoom! Long term storage is trivial and performance is reliable.
      The downside is these are highly toxic as even the vapors of either chemical are very nasty. They are however FAR safer than the alternatives and have been safely handled since the 1940’s.
      The needed safety precautions, however, do not come without costs. If a suitable propellant that is less expensive to process, handle and use it will be because of economics not environmentalism.

    • it strikes me as pure virtue signalling

      Alot of idiotic eco-loon/socialist mentality lodged in NASA. Like other 3-4 letter agencies, may not be possible to purge them w/o totally breaking them down & rebuilding from scratch.

  2. NASA is ‘going green’, in space? Yikes!
    I sure hope the space toilet is working… and they have some kaopectate or imodiumD in the med kit!

  3. Useless virtue signaling is corrupting everything.
    Label it as “green” is just more green-washing.

    The real reason to pursue this fuel/oxidizer change:

    The GPIM project will demonstrate the practical capabilities of a Hydroxyl Ammonium Nitrate fuel/oxidizer blend, known as AF-M315E. This innovative, low-toxicity propellant, developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base, California, is a high-performance, green alternative to hydrazine.

    NASA and its partners always strive to maintain the strictest safety standards for storage, transport and use of rocket propellants. While all rocket fuels can be dangerous to handle without the proper safety precautions, AF-M315E has significantly reduced toxicity levels compared to hydrazine, making it easier and safer to store and handle. It also requires fewer handling restrictions and potentially shorter launch processing times, resulting in lowered costs.

    AF-M315E also is expected to improve overall vehicle performance. 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.
    Preliminary data indicates that it offers nearly 50% higher performance for a given propellant tank volume compared to a conventional monopropellant hydrazine system.

    The items I highlighted in bold are the very real, valid engineering reasons to switch to hydroxyl ammonium nitrate (HAN) as a fuel oxidizer from hydrazine.
    Just drop the “green” nonsense. HAN is lower in toxicity than hydrazine, but is still toxic, just not as toxic.

    • Joel, you have given me some relief on this change. My first thought was that meaningless”sustainability” was being put before choice of the very best engineering for the job. Still, I think the presence of green sustainability creeps in NASA are a serious security factor. I view engineering as a language and a way of thinking.

      • My first reaction is how can it be “sustainable”? Without the ability to regenerate itself, the fuel must eventually be depleted – otherwise we are into perpetual motion territory.

        Sustainable is one of those words like model that is rapidly becoming a clue to stop reading.

    • Adding the word “Green” is partly virtue signaling but some new moniker over mono-methyl hydrazine (MMH) was needed.

      I worked for a short time as a spacecraft system engineer on this program at Ball Aerospace before I left there for a start-up about 2.5 years ago. I was also a systems engineer on other spacecraft discussed here frequently: Suomi-NPP, JPSS-1, Cloudsat, and four of the DigitalGlobe spacecraft. Joel is correct about the engineering reasons for this switch. Not only is the propulsion system performance on-orbit increased (at the expense of more power needed), no one should underestimate the difficulties getting a spacecraft fueled with traditional MMH (the range safety hoops to jump through during planning and execution of the fueling operations are probably the hardest ground processing factors for a non-nuclear spacecraft).

    • Wiki says that HAN propellant is “…corrosive and toxic, and may be carcinogenic.” It seems it is being developed because it can provide more thrust per tankful than hydrazine fueled rockets although it is heavier. A rocket scientist could perhaps reveal whether the greater thrust is sufficient to overcome the disadvantage of greater weight. HAN may also be less difficult for rocket engineers to handle than hydrazine systems, but hydrazine problems are a personnel safety issue, not an environmental issue.
      Greater thrust seems a good reason to try it, but this has little to do with “greenness”.

    • “Less toxic?”

      “Sure is! You’ll need half again as much to kill you as hydrazine would!”

      “Wow. That’s a… um… real consolation there…”

    • Hydroxylammonium nitrate (HONH3.NO3) is a solid, Joel. The rocket fuel is a water solution of hydroxylammonium nitrate. It’s much less toxic than hydrazine and easier to handle.

      On the other hand, it requires a hot noble metal catalyst to get it burning. Since the stuff is both the oxidizer and the fuel in one solution (like ammonium nitrate), the fuel needs only one tank rather than the usual two.

      The solution is denser than hydrazine, and that’s touted as granting more fuel per unit volume. I’ve not done the calculation, but the claim will depend on the concentration of the HONH3.NO3 in the water solution.

  4. Here’s a link to a story that actually describes the propellant.

    As far as I can tell, “green” is just virtue signalling. The propellant system is more efficient than hydrazine and not as nasty to handle. Otherwise it doesn’t have any of the characteristics normally associated with “green”. It might save some greenbacks (the money kind not the trout kind) so I suppose that’s some kind of green. 🙂

    • Likely what happened is the precise engineering language in the first draft of the article was absent anything remotely referencing “green”, but some smooth marketing types got ahold of it and said, “Needs more green…”

      Typically workflow from large organizations. I’m starting to dabble in this kind of garbage: I want to put out educational or informational material but marketing rejects it until it has a satisfactory amount virtue signaling in it.

    • You can’t just put engineering arguments forward these days, you have to sell it to the green lefty nutters that managed to crawl there way up the ladder above you.

  5. I couldn’t see anything about ‘sustainability’ in the article. Whatever ‘sustainability’ means….

    As far as I can see, they are trying to develop a ‘better’ propellant, not a ‘greener’ one…

  6. Low toxicity?
    In space?
    Well for sure we would not want to poison all those life forms circling our atmosphere,now would we?
    So when might NASA actually start accurate measurement of all these things they assure us will be catastrophic?
    Funny how they can be so “eco-friendly” yet unable to get the instrument packages in place and working properly.
    Or is that design rather than a failure?

    One can speculate endlessly where one chooses not to measure.

  7. The reference to ‘green’ is about the volatility. Hydrazine is volatile, which means it evaporates, creating vapors that are toxic when inhaled. The HAN is an ionic liquid. The molecular mass is high and the fact that it is salt makes it non-volatile, so us workers don’t inhale it!

  8. From the sound of things, HAN is safe when compared to hydrazine but, that’s about as far as it goes. HAN is still toxic, corrosive and, in general, bad for you. The ‘Green’ label is pure marketing BS. It’s ‘Green’ compared to hydrazine… that’s called damning with faint praise. But in space, who cares. The only thing that really matters is, “…it offers nearly 50% higher performance for a given propellant tank volume compared to a conventional monopropellant hydrazine system.”

  9. For the snowflakes NASA could also give joy by adding its gluten free and no small animals were harmed inits manufacture.

  10. Many engineers believe that when NASA decided to change the method of applying foam to the outside of the shuttle’s main tank, from a proven method that had been used for years, to a new method merely because the new method didn’t uses CFC’s, was the ultimate cause for the loss of the shuttle Columbia.

    • True. NASA also abandoned the tried and true Trichloroethylene solvent to prep the tank in favor of some “green” replacement.

    • “AF-M315E is a spacecraft monopropellant developed by the Air Force Research Lab at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It is significantly less toxic than hydrazine and has virtually zero vapor pressure at room temperature. This characteristic alone eliminates the need for SCAPE suits and significantly reduces the inherent costs of using the propellant. AF-M315E is also much less flammable than hydrazine, which makes it less of a hazard to store, handle, and load aboard spacecraft.”

      Why is it “green”? To get money. The propellant is probably pink in color.

      • Because GPIM satellite technology demonstrator was suppose to go into space in late 2015, under the Obama Maladministration.

        NASA was highly politicized under the Obama maladmin, like most other executive branch agencies under the Obama Regime. Thus everything had to have the correct “spin.” “Green” in this case.

    • And no extraterrestrial have complained so far. Which why we might as well assume that alien civilizations are comfortable with it.

      In this logic, the “low toxicity propellant” could indeed upset extraterrestrial green agendas and force “them” to evaporate our planet.

      *palmface*

  11. Not mentioned in the publicity literature on AF-M315E are 1) the difficulty in igniting the stuff, and 2) its truly awful material compatibility.

    Back in the 1990s, Thiokol was keen on selling HAN/TEAN (TEAN being triethylammonium nitrate) to the Navy as an aircraft carrier catapult propellant, and the Army as the answer to the never-ending quest for a liquid gun propellant. The only problem was getting the stuff to start burning. Once it did, it was fine. But the fact that it is an aqueous solution makes it tough to get going. I suggested taking advantage of the water, and igniting the stuff with microwaves. Long story short, I found that neat HAN/TEAN had a couple of second induction time prior to taking off, an undesirable trait in a monopropellant. However, adding just the tiniest amount of actual ammonium nitrate to the solution allowed the microwaves to induce instant ignition. I’d really be interested in seeing how they ignite the stuff in this satellite, since I walked away from a NASA contract I had won to develop microwave HAN/TEAN ignition because they refused to even consider negotiating patent rights.

    My wife has dealt with this in her former job at Northrop Grumman. AFRL kept pushing AFM-315E for all of her programs, and it never went anywhere primarily because of material compatibility issues. None of the tank or feed system materials used in most rocket propulsion systems were usable with the stuff, and storage and feed always came before ignition.

    Hydrazine has gotten a bum rap over the years, and I don’t know how it happened. It is an amazingly versatile propellant, and though it is toxic, it isn’t a hyper poison of any kind. I worked with people up at NASA/Armstrong (nee Dryden) back in the 1990s, and during a tour of the F-16 hangar, they noted that the emergency power unit on the plane was fueled with hydrazine. They said “If you smell something fishy [hydrazine], just bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.” My wife and I have both fired rocket engines using monomethyl hydrazine (MMH), and both of us have gone up to the stand post-fire with no personal personal protective gear and examined the engines (she actually measured the throat diameter for erosion). After one Peacekeeper test at Santa Susanna, an old Rocketdyne engineer and I were examining the hardware, and I noticed that one of the attitude control engine nozzles was wet. I pointed it out to Lloyd, and he said “That isn’t water. I’ll bet it’s MMH.” Whereupon he swiped the liquid with his bare index finger, rubbed his thumb and forefinger together to feel whether it was oily, and then sniffed it. “Yep, MMH,” he said, and offered a whiff to me – which I took. “It smells fishy,” he said, and it did. And it didn’t kill me. Or him. And I mention that he was an old engineer, because he had been working with this stuff in this manner his entire career.

    People should learn to lighten up.

    • I was once called , the into a State Department meeting with the President of Roscosmos, the Russian equivalent of SpaceX. Through a translator, he lauded the virtues of the Dnepr launch vehicle. A converted SS-18 ICBM, the Dnepr could put about 9,900 lb into low earth orbit. But the principal virtue, according to this guy, was its use of “green” propellants!

      The Dnepr uses nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) as the oxidizer, and unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine (UDMH) as the fuel. NTO is a notoriously bad actor in the rocket community, and UDMH is considered the worst of the hydrazines even by Soviet standards. Both have killed scores of people. Nevertheless, both do produce beneficial results when they soak into the soil. So he wasn’t really wrong, just mostly so.

  12. Adding the word ‘green’ doesn’t always work.

    About 10 years ago a UK based defence company put forward the idea of ‘green’ bullets for small arms.

    The idea was sound enough. Replace lead with another product in bullets so that the back stops at ranges didn’t get completely filled with lead and hence would be ‘green’ and easier/safer to maintain from an environmental point of view.

    If I recall correctly there was never intention that the ‘green’ bullets would be used in combat, purely for range shooting.

    The Left spilled their lattes. Bullets! Bullets can’t be GREEN!!! Bullets KILL PEOPLE!!! Shock! Outrange!

    ‘Sod ya then’ said the defence company and went back to designing autonomous combat vehicles and range back stops are still filled with lead.

  13. Re. the new propellent, why not just say “”Less toxic “””

    Perhaps NASA should be told that the S stands for space, and to leave
    Earthy things to the far too many government agencies which already
    exits in Trumps government.

    Perhaps a word from Trump himself to the Director that such “Green”
    thinking is not desirable.

    MJE VK5ELL

  14. While the use of the new propellant is non-toxic, it being non-toxic is still important even in space. Once astronauts get back into the business of repairing satellites, the potential of getting reaction propellant on a space suit and returning to a vehicle/station are still important. I recall there were cases that caused issues with the space shuttle. Also, having a less toxic propellant while fuelling in flight prep would be a good thing.

    Just some random thoughts…

  15. They could be more green if they did not launch the satellite but there are always compelling reasons to not do everything possible to reduce greenhouse gasses, just enough to salve their consciences.

  16. The HAN propellent will be used to demonstrate ‘station keeping’ capabilities of the satellite only, after orbital insertion by the primary launch vehicle. It is not being used in the primary launch vehicle, on this flight.

    From the NASA report: “The GPIM payload will fly to space aboard a Ball compact small satellite or “smallsat.” During the test flight, researchers will conduct orbital maneuvers to demonstrate the performance of the propellant during attitude control maneuvers, changes in orbital inclination and orbit lowering.”

    “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.”

    Setting aside the absurd ‘green’ appellation, this appears to be a real engineering improvement for rocket performance (Isp = Specific Impulse) and propellant handling safety. Specific impulse is the primary measure of rocket engines efficiency. Higher Isp values indicate higher thrust force for a given mass flow rate of propellant. For a derivation of specific impulse, see
    https://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/airplane/specimp.html

  17. According to Nasa: NASA is developing a green alternative to conventional chemical propulsion systems for next-generation launch vehicles and spacecraft.

    For launch vehicles it makes sense.

    In space, however, it’s a dead cert that nobody will be taking their helmet off.

  18. This reminds me of an old cartoon. Three astronauts are standing on the walk between the gantry and the capsule. They are wearing their space suits and carrying their individual portable air conditioners. They are looking the booster and capsule when one of the says, “Just think, this was all bought from the lowest bidder.”

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