The final frontier will soon get a dose of green.
Aerojet-Rocketdyne, based in Rancho Cordova, has been awarded $1.2 million by the Defense Department to develop “green” propellant to replace toxic chemicals used in satellites and space missions.
The goal is to come up with a more environmentally benign alternative to hydrazine, the liquid propellant that now powers most of the propulsion systems used in satellites and space missions, including the Mars rover Curiosity. Hydrazine is so toxic that workers handling it must wear fully enclosed suits. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies the chemical as a probable human carcinogen, and exposure can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and central nervous system.
Aerojet has been working to develop an alternative for 20 years, said Roger Myers, the company’s director of Advanced In-Space Programs. Eventually, he expects greener alternatives also will replace solid propellants, like the toxic perchlorates used in rocket engines.
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“We see a growing market in green propellant, particularly in the small satellite emerging market,” said Myers. Such propellants would be cheaper and easier to store and handle and so would reduce costs, according to NASA.
Aerojet will test propellants at its Chemical Synthesis Laboratory in Rancho Cordova, then perform thruster testing to select the most promising ones for future research.
“If we’re successful at developing new propellants that are green, then there’s no question people will use it,” Myers said. “But we have a lot of work to do, starting with chemistry, then engineering and applications.”
Myers said it will likely take about three more years for Aerojet to develop a green propellant formula. Once that’s done, the company will focus on building rocket engines that use it.
“This is a strategic move for us into this area,” Myers said. “We’re hoping if this contract is successful and is a viable option, it would mean more rocket production in Sacramento and the manufacturing of the propellant here.”
He said the development of the green propellant and the propulsion systems could lead to the creation of dozens or even hundreds of new jobs at the Rancho Cordova facility.
In a separate effort, Aerojet is in the midst of building rocket thrusters for NASA’s $45 million Green Propellant Infusion Mission, or GPIM. The space agency intends to launch a satellite next year that will test hydroxyl ammonium nitrate as a potential replacement for hydrazine.
Hydroxyl ammonium nitrate is denser than hydrazine and can be held in smaller tanks, freeing up space for other technology, said Todd Barber, senior propulsion engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Also, the new propellant has a lower freezing point. In space we have to keep the tanks above the freezing point of water,” he said. “We can keep the tanks colder, which means use of less electrical power in space to keep it liquid.”
Hydroxylammonium nitrate is not without its own environmental problems. An initial review of the chemical by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control found that the chemical is highly corrosive, can be highly toxic when absorbed by the skin and is also acutely toxic to aquatic organisms.
But it’s less toxic than hydrazine. According to NASA’s website, hydroxylammonium nitrate requires fewer handling restrictions.
Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.