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AF-M315ENASAHaving always been at the forefront of all things cutting edge, NASA doesn’t want to lag behind when it comes to developing green technologies for space travel. To that end, their Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) is working to come up to environmentally friendly fuels to power its space missions.

They currently use hydrazine to propel their manned space missions and satellites.  But hydrazine is a highly toxic substance that’s extremely flammable and corrosive. Its toxic nature and flammability make it costly and dangerous to transport. It’s so hazardous that handlers must wear specially designed suits that prevent it from being inhaled or coming in contact with their skin.  But if everything goes as planned, a much safer alternative, described as being less caustic than caffeine, will soon be powering America’s space flights.

An article on NBC News’s science site, details NASA’s release of the new fuel’s test results at a recent briefing in Washington. The eco-fuel is called AF-M315ENASA and is being developed by the Colorado-based company Ball Aerospace.  Colorado Sen. Mark Udall was on hand for the announcement that the new fuel surmounted a major hurdle when it passed the first rocket thruster pulsing test. NASA hopes the fuel will power a test flight in 2015, and if all goes well, will eventually fuel roving satellites and deep space missions.  An added bonus is that in addition to being less toxic, cheaper to transport and less dangerous to handle, AF-M315ENASA has the advantage of a 50% better performance.

The primary ingredient in the new propellant is hydroxyl ammonium nitrate. It emits harmless substances like water vapor, hydrogen and carbon dioxide when burned. Unlike hydrazine, which can’t be loaded into the spacecraft until it’s on the launch pad because of its flammability, AF-M315ENASA can be shipped inside the craft. NASA says this cuts the cost of transport, as well as the time needed to launch a space craft.

According to the NASA Fact Sheet “AF-M315E 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.”

NASA’s contract with Ball Engineering totals roughly $35.3 million.  The total cost of development of the environmentally friendly fuel is $42.3 million, according to a NASA spokesperson. The fuel is one of many green propellant options being explored by the space agency.  Another option under research would utilize the sun to propel solar sails on space vehicles.

One can imagine that eventually some of NASA’s green fuel developments will trickle down to earthbound transport like cars and trucks. Solar sails fueling our nation’s automobiles – now there’s a bright idea that just might take off.