A Ball Aerospace engineer adjusts the thermal insulation on NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission spacecraft bus following integration of the propulsion system. Credit: Ball Aerospace

A Ball Aerospace engineer adjusts the thermal insulation on NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission spacecraft bus following integration of the propulsion system. Credit: Ball Aerospace

The propulsion subsystem for NASA's Green Propellant Infusion Mission has been integrated onto the spacecraft, moving the mission another major step toward scheduled launch in 2016.

GPIM prime contractor Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado, was able to integrate the green propellant propulsion subsystem in less than two weeks after receiving it from Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Washington. The propulsion subsystem will be the primary payload on the mission’s spacecraft — a Ball Configurable Platform 100 small satellite. System performance and environmental testing has already begun.

The mission will demonstrate the practical capabilities of a hydroxyl ammonium nitrate based fuel/oxidizer propellant blend, known as AF-M315E, developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It offers higher performance but is safer to handle and easier on the environment or "greener" than traditional chemical fuels such as hydrazine currently used in spacecraft thrusters. It also requires fewer handling restrictions and has potentially shorter launch processing times, resulting in lowered costs.

Because the new propellant provides improved performance and volumetric efficiency compared to hydrazine, more of it can be stored in propellant tanks of the same volume, resulting in a 50-percent increase in spacecraft maneuvering capability for a given volume. It also has a lower freezing point than hydrazine, requiring less spacecraft power to maintain the propellant temperature. These characteristics make it ideal for a wide range of emerging small, deep space satellite missions.

“NASA is always looking for new technologies that also allow us an opportunity to improve safety and cost efficiency,” said Trudy Kortes, program executive for NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions. “GPIM additionally affords us an opportunity to test an environmentally-friendly fuel in space for the first time and there’s nothing more rewarding than a trailblazing mission.”

The GPIM propulsion subsystem on the satellite will be loaded with the low-toxicity AF-M315E propellant before launch. During the 13-month mission, researchers will conduct orbital maneuvers to demonstrate the performance of the propellant during attitude control shifts, changes in orbital inclination and orbit lowering.

“GPIM is the key mission to demonstrate a green monopropellant alternative to hydrazine,” said Jim Oschmann, vice president and general manager of Civil Space and Technology at Ball Aerospace. “Everyone in the industry, from NASA to our industry partners to green propellant suppliers, is eager to see 10 years of American-led research and development realized with this spaceflight mission.”

Three Department of Defense experimental payloads will also fly aboard the Green Propellant Infusion Mission spacecraft, which is scheduled for a launch to low-Earth orbit in 2016 in partnership with the Army Space and Missile Defense Command. Additional team members include the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, and NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The mission is part of a portfolio of technology demonstration flight and ground projects led by NASA teams and industry partners across the country, managed by the Technology Demonstration Missions program office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

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