Running Bio at -14°F and Zero G
by Ed Burke and Kelly Burke, Dennis K. Burke Inc.
Maine’s bluShift Aerospace launches the world’s first biofuel-powered rocket
A Maine company has launched the world’s first commercial rocket powered by biofuel.
Called Stardust, this small rocket is a prototype for a design intended to take small satellites and research projects into space. The single-stage booster stands just 20 feet tall and can carry 17 pounds of payload. It was created by Maine-based aerospace firm bluShift Aerospace.
The rocket launched in sub-zero conditions (-14 degrees Fahrenheit), on January 31, from a snow-covered runway at the Loring Commerce Center in northern Maine. During the low-altitude test flight, Stardust 1.0 flew to an altitude of just over 4,000 feet and returned to the ground with a parachute.
The test was intentionally under-fueled to comply with the Federal Aviation Administration’s time and height restrictions for amateur rocketry. BluShift’s goal is to commercialize Stardust and a new generation of rockets as carriers of nanosatellites.
The flight was nominal, and the rocket touched down gently a few hundred feet from the launch site. The successful conclusion of the launch also featured the first rocket recovery by snowmobile.
CEO Sasha Deri founded bluShift Aerospace back in 2014. Based out of Brunswick, Maine, bluShift Aerospace was awarded a NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to develop its hybrid engine and fuel in mid-2019.
Stardust 1.0 is unique in that it utilizes a proprietary rocket fuel, in a modular hybrid liquid/solid fueled rocket engine (the Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two features a similar hybrid engine).
The bluShift team performed around 240 engine tests over the last four years leading up to the first launch, according to Deri. They say their smaller rockets don’t need the same amount of infrastructure to launch as larger rockets, so the company hopes it will help make space research more affordable and accessible.
Choosing Biofuels for Rockets
The company’s founder, Sascha Deri, is also the inventor of the rocket’s biofuel. He says that the idea came to him sitting around the kitchen table at his brother’s organic farm. He spotted a “substance” on the windowsill and started to wonder if biofuels could replace petroleum-derived fuels in the rocket engines he was testing.
What this “substance” is remains proprietary, but it can be found on farms around the world and is renewable. “You could technically eat our fuel. I wouldn’t recommend it, but nothing bad would happen to you. Totally non-toxic,” he said in an interview before the launch.
Deri says they found that their invention performed better and was cheaper than standard rocket fuels while also being very close to net-zero carbon.
As was demonstrated at the snowy launch, the fuel can be used in a wide variety of temperature conditions. “We are in the state of Maine where it can be very cold and we are seeing weather conditions here that have temperatures that are similar to that of Mars,” Deri explained. He added that NASA has looked at their particular type of technology to potentially use it to return payloads from the red planet.
First Steps to Spaceport Maine?
This was Maine’s first commercial rocket launch, and many believe it could also be a first step toward the reality of a “Spaceport Maine.”
Loring Commerce Center was Loring Air Force base until it was retired in 1994. In the 1950s, it was a staging post for aircraft and cargo headed across the Atlantic to Europe, and later it hosted B-52 bombers for Strategic Air Command during the Cold War.
Along with Presque Isle Air Force Base, Loring was strategic as a jumping off point both to Europe and over the Arctic to the Soviet Union.
BluShift wants to do orbital polar launches from a yet-to-be selected site along the coast of Maine starting in 2023. Deri pointed out that Loring in Northern Maine would still be an ideal site for ‘horizontal space launches’ similar to those planned out of Mojave Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Watch for the next bluShift Aerospace launch from Loring sometime in the next year. This time, the Stardust 2.0 launch will aim for the K·rm·n Line, 62 miles up in space. Ultimately, bluShift Aerospace is looking to give customer payloads six to eight minutes of zero-g near apogee, longer than many sub-orbital flights. BluShift Aerospace also plans to build more rockets, including a three-stage Red Dwarf rocket, capable of lofting a 66-pound payload into low Earth orbit. It could carry tiny satellites, known as Cube-Sats, about 100 miles above the Earth’s surface.
BluShift says they want to become the first “Uber to space.” They are focusing on rockets carrying small loads instead of the larger loads that others like SpaceX are aiming for.
Ed and Kelly Burke are respectively, Chairman of the Board and Senior Marketing Manager at fuel distributor Dennis K. Burke Inc. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-884-7800.