NASA is locked on making the Mars dream a reality in the coming years, but it seems the federal space agency wants to do things right as it delves into serious space travel. After decades of using the same type of rocket fuel, NASA has decided to find something more environmentally friendly to allow the next generation of spacecraft to thunder out of the atmosphere.
NASA has just completed the first round of tests that prove the new "green" rocket propellant, AF-M315E, could be a viable option in the future. That may not sound like a big deal, but keep in mind that this is rocket science, so even creating rocket fuel that works without exploding the spacecraft is pretty complicated.
Hydrazine has been used as a component in rocket fuel since the first rocket-powered fighter planes were invented during World War II, all the way up to powering parts of the Space Shuttle until the craft was retired. But hydrazine-based propellants have problems since the substance is extremely toxic and very unstable.
On top of that, there are environmental issues with the old rocket fuel. The environmental impact of rocket launches isn't technically that heavy, but every time a rocket is launched, the propellants used don't exactly do the environment any favors, as a study from 2011 points out. Rocket launches emit soot, black carbon particles that absorb sunlight and can add to the heat in the atmosphere, which adds to the whole climate change problem.
That's where NASA's decision to start testing the new propellant comes in handy. NASA started the Green Propellant Infusion Mission to deal with this issue by creating an alternative to conventional chemical propulsion systems for the new-generation launch vehicles and spacecraft that are being developed to take astronauts to an asteroid and then eventually Mars, according to NASA's plans.
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The result is AF-M315E, a hydroxyl ammonium nitrate fuel oxidizer blend that was originally developed at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base in California. If it works, this fuel change will be a win for NASA on all fronts. The stuff is actually less toxic and easier to handle than regular hydrazine-based propellants, according to NASA. It comes with fewer handling restrictions, which helps cut down on cost. Plus, it's more efficient than hydrazine, giving a spacecraft more thrust for less fuel, and it's more dense, which means more of it fits into a smaller space in a fuel container.
In other words, NASA has every reason to continue running tests to see if AF-M315E will work as a cheaper, better "green" rocket fuel that both NASA and commercial space companies could use in launches in the coming years, according to NASA.
NASA just finished up the functional and environmental hardware and systems tests that were the first big step toward the fuel's actually being put into use for rocket launches. Now, the agency just has to pull off the next part of the process and actually test the fuel. The first test is slated to take place in 2017, according to NASA. A compact small satellite (known around NASA as a "smallsat") will be launched into space loaded with AF-M315E. The researchers will conduct orbital maneuvers to demonstrate the performance of the propellant during attitude control maneuvers, changes in orbital inclination and orbit lowering. And if it all works out, the researchers will get to move on to testing it out on larger spacecraft.
If it doesn't, well, NASA will possibly have to find some other way to decrease its environmental footprint. There's always recycling.