Bio-fuel propels a sustainable space race

The successful launch of Stardust, which uses bio-fuel as a source of power, suggests rocket science doesn’t have to be complicated.

It’s not rocket science – a throwaway phrase you often hear, when people dismiss something as easy to do. But what if rocket science itself doesn’t need to be complicated? What if the search for new rocket fuels can be not just better for the planet, but commercially viable?

American company blueShift Aerospace, based in Maine, was created in 2014, with the intention of being a leading creator of hybrid rocket engines and bio-derived rocket fuels. As we have written before, we are on the cusp of a new space age, with growing requirements for cleaner, lighter fuels to propel rockets of the future.

Green hydrogen is one way of powering rockets, but what could bio-fuel do to help astronauts of the future explore the depths of space in a faster, more sustainable way?

The final frontier

Stardust 1.0 is the first generation of blueShift Aerospace’s fleet of space rockets, described by the company as ideal for student and budget payloads. Standing at a height of 20 feet, with a lift-off mass of 550 pounds, Stardust 1.0 finally blasted off on 31st January 2021, and reached an apogee (peak distance from Earth’s surface) of 0.75 miles.

I think that is fair to say that there is an ongoing race for sustainability. Maine has two rocket companies: bluShift Aerospace working on a hybrid engine that burns a non-toxic bio-derived fuel and a non-cryogenic oxidizer, and VALT Enterprises working on an airbreathing engine, which of course saves weight and therefore fuel.

– Seth Lockman, Communications Director at blueShift Aerospace

In order to break free of Earth’s gravity, breach the atmosphere and reach space, a rocket would need to reach a height of roughly 50 miles. Stardust 1.0 barely scratched the surface, but certainly left a mark. Its launch showed that bio-fuel-powered rockets could be every bit as effective as conventional ones.

BlueShift Aerospace designed the rocket to comprise of just one stage and a hybrid engine. The fuel, described as ‘non-toxic’ and bio-derived solid fuel, is steeped in mystery. For the time being, blueShift Aerospace is reluctant to spill the beans and give detailed information about the fuel’s chemical composition, keeping observers guessing about how bio-fuel could be used successfully as rocket fuel.

Seth Lockman, Communications Director at blueShift Aerospace, adds: “I think that is fair to say that there is an ongoing race for sustainability. Maine has two rocket companies: bluShift Aerospace working on a hybrid engine that burns a non-toxic bio-derived fuel and a non-cryogenic oxidizer, and VALT Enterprises working on an airbreathing engine, which of course saves weight and therefore fuel. Across the world, many nanolaunch startups are finding innovative ways to reduce their carbon footprint in manufacturing, logistics, and launch.”

Launching a rocket such as Stardust 1.0 needn’t be a costly endeavour, according to Seth. “With labor, materials, and supplies, the Stardust prototype and the launch tower cost about $260,000. In its nearly seven years of operation, bluShift has a lifetime cost of about $1 million, if you factor in donated person-hours. As rocket companies go we’re a very lean operation.”

Just the beginning

Stardust 1.0 is just the first experimental rocket prototype of what blueShift Aerospace intends to become a range of increasingly powerful rockets. Stardust 2.0 is expected to blast off sometime in 2021, with a payload of 30kg, over three times the size of its predecessor.

Seth Lockman is optimistic that a time may come where it’s possible to harvest bio-fuel in space, claiming: “I’m not sure how much it’s been explored but I’ll go out on a limb and say yes, it should be possible to make a bluShift fuel core in space.”

He explains that the limitation on size for their rockets isn’t so much a case of fuel, but rocket engines themselves. “Hybrid rockets become very difficult to operate as they scale up. For now at least we want to keep our rockets small so that we can treat cubesats as the primary payloads on each mission, rather than secondary to a crew or larger satellite.”

Looking to the future, Seth adds: “While I think it’s unlikely that a Modular Adaptable Rocket Engine for Vehicle Launch (MAREVL™) will ever scale to the point of carrying crew to space from the surface of the Earth, it’s possible that we eventually innovate to that point. Also this does not rule out launching larger payloads in lower gravities.”

Stardust 2.0’s maximum altitude is likely to be 35-62 miles, taking it above that crucial 50-mile mark, meaning it could potentially allow it to become the first commercially-built bio-fuel-powered rocket to reach space. As mentioned, the Stardust rockets are just part of a wider range of rockets planned over the coming years.

By 2024, blueShift Aerospace intends to launch Red Dwarf, a rocket to be comprised of three stages, which would propel nanosatellites into Earth orbit. Such a fragile payload would be possible to carry in this proposed rocket, as the company boasts that the Red Dwarf will be able to enjoy a low launch acceleration, most likely made a whole lot easier, thanks to using a clean bio-fuel rocket booster.

Space might be the final frontier, but there’s no end to the ways scientists can come together, to make sure our methods of reaching it are greener and more efficient than ever before.

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