May 24, 2019 – The Ball Aerospace-built small spacecraft for NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) arrived in Florida on May 20 to prepare for a June launch on board a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
NASA and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, are collaborating on GPIM, which aims to improve overall propellant efficiency while replacing the highly-toxic hydrazine and complex bi-propellant systems in use today with a more environmentally-friendly fuel. The propellant – a Hydroxyl Ammonium Nitrate fuel/oxidizer mix developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory — is known as AF-M315E.
Aerojet Rocketdyne delivered the Green Propellant Propulsion Subsystem to Ball Aerospace in August 2015 and it was integrated onto the Ball Commercial Platform (BCP-100) spacecraft bus in less than two weeks. The 22-newton thruster developed by Aerojet will fire simultaneously with four smaller 1-newton thrusters aboard the GPIM satellite to make orbit changes, as well as perform pointing and hold tests during the early months of an expected year-long flight.
“GPIM was a truly collaborative effort, working with our partners – NASA, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Air Force Research Laboratory, U.S. Air Force and SpaceX,” said Dr. Makenzie Lystrup, vice president and general manager, Civil Space, Ball Aerospace. “We are proud to be part of this historic mission to test a new ‘green’ propellant on board Ball’s flight-proven small satellite, helping to provide science at any scale.”
The propellant and new propulsion technology offers several advantages for future commercial, university, and government satellites, such as longer mission duration, additional maneuverability, and increased payload space. The propellant offers nearly 50 percent higher performance for a given propellant tank volume compared to a conventional hydrazine system. AF-M315E will also offer commercial spaceports across the U.S. a safer, faster and much less costly propellant. The “shirt sleeve” operational environment GPIM offers will change ground processing time from weeks to days.
The GPIM bus uses the smallest of the Ball Configurable Platform (BCP) satellites, which is about the size of a mini refrigerator, and was built in just 46 days. The BCP-100 can host a minimum of four independent payloads and demonstrates the ability to rapidly access space by using standard payload interfaces and streamlined procedures.
In addition to the primary GPIM payload, three Department of Defense (DoD) experimental payloads will fly aboard GPIM:
- Integrated Miniaturized Electrostatic Analyzer Reflight (iMESA-R), a U.S. Air Force Academy mission designed to measure plasma densities and temperatures.
- Small Wind and Temperature Spectrometer (SWATS), a Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) mission to provide in-situ, co-located measurements of the atmospheric neutral and ion density, composition, temperature, and winds on a global scale.
- Space Object Self-tracker (SOS), a pathfinder experiment built by the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) to decrease space collisions.
“We have shown that Ball can provide small, fast and affordable solutions with excellent performance and now we’re excited to do that for NASA,” Lystrup said.
Ball Aerospace is responsible for system engineering; flight thruster performance verification; ground and flight data review; spacecraft bus; assembly, integration and test; and launch and flight support.
GPIM is part of the upcoming DOD’s Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission, carrying 24 payloads aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. It’s scheduled to lift off from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on June 22, 2019.
STP-2 will mark the first-ever DOD launch using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, as well as the first-ever DOD mission with re-used rocket flight hardware. It is among the most challenging launches in SpaceX history, with four separate upper-stage engine burns, three separate deployment orbits, and a final propulsive passivation maneuver during a total mission duration of over six hours.
STP-2 will provide space access for a broad range of science and technology experiments and demonstrations from DOD and national laboratories, universities, international partners, NASA, and NOAA. These spacecraft will provide valuable data to improve weather forecasting, space environmental monitoring, propulsion, communications, and many other advanced space technologies.
The STP-2 mission will also provide the U.S. Air Force with insight into the SpaceX booster recovery and refurbishment process, enabling future National Security Space Launch missions on SpaceX launch vehicles using previously flown boosters.