Boulder's Ball Aerospace Unveils First Non-Toxic Rocket Fuel Mission

Around Colorado, we hear a lot about aerospace – after all, we rank second in the nation for private sector aerospace employment, according to the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. And around Colorado, we also hear a lot about green technologies, as Colorado Cleantech Industries Association reports that we are fourth highest on the 2015 U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index. It seems an appropriate fit for the state, then, when a new technology combining BOTH of these popular topics is developed here. 

Colorado Business Roundtable attended a March 31, 2016 viewing, tour and panel which showcased NASA's Green Propulsion Infusion Mission (GPIM) at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado. This NASA spacecraft is safer on the ground and more efficient in space thanks to a new, non-toxic fuel. 

  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

Enthusiastic remarks were given by stakeholders including Rob Strain, President of Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.; Steve Jurczyk, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington; Chris McLean, Principal Investigator for GPIM at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.; Julie Van Kleeck, Vice President of Space Programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne; and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado.

Strain spoke first and broke it down for those of us who are not directly in aerospace engineering. GPIM means that both the vehicle and its fuel will be better, cheaper, simpler and safer all around. This GPIM is another in a long line of technological breakthroughs developed, in part, over Ball’s sixty year history on the Boulder campus.

NASA’s Jurczyk addressed the crowded room with some encouraging estimates: GPIM has a 50% decrease in fuel propellant with a 50% improvement in performance rating. Future satellites will have longer missions employing additional maneuverability, increased payload space and simpler launch processing. It employs the first modern thrusting system since the 1960’s. 

Rep. Perlmutter, who sits on the Subcommittee for Space on the House Committee for Science, Space and Technology, related how proud he is that an expert witness from Colorado is so often called for those panels, due to the state’s ranking and reputation. Perlmutter discussed the human drives for exploration and optimism which inspire people to ask and seek to answer the question, “What’s on the other side of the universe?”

  Credit: Ball Aerospace

Credit: Ball Aerospace

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Van Kleeck noted how rare it is to get to create a new propellant. “I hate to say it’s rocket science, but, well…,” and she trailed off into chuckles. But everyone was listening with seriousness and agreement as she revealed how success in this project came through true collaboration, not just on the technology but on the execution. “We always found a way,” she said.

Colorado resident and project lead McLean provided many technological details, specifically noting that dramatic increases to safety in the past 10-15 years provided a great advantage in this process. Human and environmental health may be improved with this new green propellant, since traditional rocket fuels are highly toxic and unstable. McLean also spoke highly of the partnerships that led to this high level of progress: Ball Aerospace, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Edwards Air Force Research, Laboratory (AFRL), NASA Glenn Research Center (GRC), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC), with additional mission support from the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Kirtland Air Force Base.

GPIM will launch in 2017. The discussion and remarks took place in Ball’s Overlook Conference Room, which at the time happened to overlook the build-out of JPSS-1, the next-generation weather satellite. Stay tuned for that launch next year as well, as the Colorado aerospace climate continues to soar.

Learn more:
GPIM Fact Sheet from Ball Aerospace

 An artist's rendering of NASA's Green Propellant Infusion Mission payload in flight aboard the Ball Aerospace BCP-100 spacecraft.  Credit: Ball Aerospace       Credits: Ball Aerospace

An artist's rendering of NASA's Green Propellant Infusion Mission payload in flight aboard the Ball Aerospace BCP-100 spacecraft. Credit: Ball Aerospace

Credits: Ball Aerospace