Groundbreaking biofuel rocket could be ‘Uber for space’

It is the first commercial launch of a rocket powered by bio-derived fuel.
KNACK FACTORY/COURTESY AEROSPACE

Snow swirled and a biting wind sent temperatures plummeting to several degrees below zero as the Stardust 1.0 made its debut at a former military base in Maine.

Strapped to a trailer and pulled by a pick-up truck along a runway once used by B-52 bombers in the Cold War, it wasn’t the most glamorous entrance for a rocket about to make history.

And it very nearly didn’t as the subzero conditions played havoc with the electronics and clouds moved in.

But after several delays and as the Sunday afternoon light waned, Stardust finally lifted off, becoming the first commercial launch of a rocket powered by bio-derived fuel.

Sascha Deri, who invented the biofuel, is cagey about what it’s made of, but says it can be sourced from farms around the world. The founder and chief executive of bluShift Aerospace, he and his team have spent more than six years refining the formula and designing a modular hybrid engine, which is also unique.

“We want to prove that a bio-derived fuel can serve just as well, if not better in some cases, than traditional fuels to power rockets and payloads to space,” he says.

“It actually costs less per kilogram than traditional rocket fuel and it’s completely non-toxic. And it’s a carbon-neutral fuel which is inherently better for our planet and more responsible.”

Stardust is a small rocket, just 20ft (6m) long and weighing 550lbs (250kg). But because it’s relatively cheap to fly and doesn’t need the high-tech infrastructure of larger rockets, it will help make space research accessible to more people. Students, researchers and businesses will be able to conduct experiments and test products with greater control and frequency.

“Right now there are freight trains to space like SpaceX and ULA – and there are buses to space, like medium size rockets,” says Deri. “They’re taking thousands of kilograms to space. But there’s no space launch service allowing one or two payloads to go to space. There’s no Uber to space. We want to be the Uber service to space.”

For the first launch, the payload included a high school experiment and tests on an alloy called nitinol made by Kellogg Research Labs in Salem, New Hampshire.

Founder Joe Kellogg says nitinol is a shape memory material that is used in medical devices such as stents. It is also used to protect rocket payloads from vibrations.

“We’re very heavily involved in space and trying to get into the larger missions like the lunar missions and the Mars missions that are coming up. Our long-term goal is to build whole rockets out of nitinol,” he says. “We think we can make them lighter and more energy efficient.”

While Stardust flew just one mile into the sky before parachuting back to Earth, a second planned rocket will be suborbital and a later version called Red Dwarf will enter polar orbit.

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