The same rocket fuel that helps power the Space Shuttle as it thunders into orbit will now be taking on a new -- perhaps surprising -- role, with the potential to benefit millions of people worldwide.
Leftover rocket fuel from NASA is being used to make a new flare that destroys land mines where they were buried, without using explosives. The flare was developed by Thiokol Propulsion in Brigham City, Utah, the NASA contractor that designs and builds rocket motors for the Space Shuttle.
Thiokol is using the surplus propellant through an agreement with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "Clearly, this project has the potential to save lives worldwide," said Marshall Center Director Arthur G. Stephenson. "Marshall is happy to help in this humanitarian endeavor."
The flare is safe to handle and easy to use. People working to deactivate the mines -- usually members of a military or humanitarian organization -- simply place the flare next to the uncovered land mine and ignite it from a safe distance using a battery-triggered electric match. The flare burns a hole in the land mine's case and ignites its explosive contents. The explosive burns away, disabling the mine and rendering it harmless.
Occasionally, the mine detonates before the explosive is fully consumed. When this occurs, the explosion is more controlled and minimized, causing less damage than other mine-disposal methods, according to Charles Zisette, program manager with Thiokol. Other methods include deactivation by hand or deliberate detonation, both highly dangerous processes.
An estimated 80 million or more active land mines are scattered around the world in at least 70 countries. Land mines kill or maim 26,000 people a year, most of them women or children, and usually after military hostilities have ended. Worldwide, there is one casualty every 22 minutes.
Using leftover rocket fuel to help destroy land mines incurs no additional costs to taxpayers. To ensure enough propellant is on-hand for each Shuttle mission, NASA allows for a small percentage of extra propellant in each batch. Once mixed, surplus fuel solidifies and cannot be saved for use in another launch. In its solid form, however, it is an ideal ingredient for Thiokol's new flare.
Thiokol Propulsion is a division of Cordant Technologies Inc. The flare was conceived in collaboration with DE Technologies, Inc., King of Prussia, Pa. Marshall is NASA's lead center for developing space transportation and propulsion systems.
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