A Ball Aerospace & Technology Corp. engineer in Boulder inspects the spacecraft that will be used in NASA’s upcoming mission to test a “green” rocket fuel. Courtesy Ball Aerospace & Technology Corp.

Ball Aerospace shows off spacecraft that will test ‘green’ rocket fuel

BOULDER — Ball Aerospace & Technology Corp. on Thursday said the spacecraft it has been building for the past three years that will be used to test a more efficient and safer rocket fuel is ready for takeoff.

Ball showed the media, politicians and the some of the mission’s team members the small, shiny spacecraft that will be put in storage awaiting a launch in early 2017 for the 13-month test flight.

NASA’s Green Propulsion Infusion Mission is hoping to find a fuel to replace hydrazine — a toxic and corrosive fuel that has been used since 1960.

The new “green” fuel offers higher performance and is safer to handle and is easier on the environment than traditional chemical fuels, said Steve Jurczyk, a NASA administrator who spoke at the event.

“We expect a 50 percent decrease in cost while improving performance,” Jurczyk said. “The fuel also has a lower freezing point, reducing the amount of heat needed to keep it in a liquid state in space.”

The mission will test how well the fuel works with thrusters, the key to maneuvering a craft in space. If successful, it could lead to widespread use in future NASA and commercial missions, Jurczyk said.

The fuel uses hydroxyl ammonium nitrate as its base. It is 45 percent denser than hydrazine, meaning more of it can be stored in containers of the same size. Lab tests show it has an approximate 50 percent increase in spacecraft maneuverability for a given volume.

“We are increasingly reliant on satellites for communications, for monitoring weather conditions on Earth and for exploration of the universe,” Jurczyk said. “It’s important we develop technology that increases protections for launch personnel and the environment, and has the potential to reduce costs.”

Ball’s Chris McLean, the principal investigator for the mission, said people working around the fuel and loading it onto spacecraft “don’t have to worry as much about exposure,” adding that “explosion ratings are down. … A spacecraft will be able to fly 50 percent longer.

“There are always going to be situations in which it makes sense to use hydrazine fuel,” McLean said. “But after GPIM, when we’re planning missions where this new green propellant has the potential for significant benefits, we’ll be able to say, ‘This has been demonstrated on orbit. Let’s take advantage of these improvements for our mission.”

The complexity of the mission wasn’t lost on Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of space programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc. in Redmond, Wash., which played a key role in developing new thruster technology.

“I dare say it … this is rocket science,” Van Kleeck said, who along with McLean, is ecstatic over the “incredible” level of cooperation and collaboration between the many companies and agencies it took to get to this point of the mission.

As the prime contractor and principal investigator, Ball collaborated with a team made up of people from Aerojet Rocketdyne, NASA Glenn Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Kennedy Space Center and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base, with additional mission support from the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Kirkland Air Force Base. There were also about 30 suppliers of components and materials from across the country involved. The team received a $45 million award from NASA in August 2012 to demonstrate the new rocket fuel.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., who is on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, said Colorado is seen as a leader in space exploration because of Ball.

“We need this kind of research to make sure it works. These kinds of things move us forward. … This shows our progress,” he said.