Febuary 2, 2021

By Ramona du Houx

A small rocket billed as the world’s first commercial booster powered by biofuel successfully launched from Limestone, Maine on January 31, 2021.

“We here to demonstrate to the world that Maine is open for aerospace,” said bluShift CEO Sascha Deri.

The Brunswick Landing based startup bluShift Aerospace  first rocket prototype, called Stardust 1.0, flew during temperatures in signal digits at the Loring Commerce Center in Limestone, Maine. The low-altitude launch was the culmination of six years of research and development, over two hundred engine tests, the successful realization of grants from NASA and the Maine Technology Institute, and the development of a novel modular hybrid rocket engine.

The rocket blasted off safely, flew over 4,000 feet up and then deployed a parachute and landed, marking a milestone for a company that aims to launch missions tailored for tiny satellites.

“It went perfectly, landing right where we were hoping for and where we were planning for. It couldn’t have been better than that. We couldn’t be more delighted,” said Deri.

Stardust 1.0 stands 20 feet tall and can carry 17 lbs. of payload. Some of bio fueled rocket’s payload consisted of a cube sat built by students of Falmouth High School with a GoPro camera, radio transmitter and sensors, an experiment by Kellogg’s Research Labs of Nashua, New Hampshire to test the vibration-dampening effects of nitinol, and a nickel-titanium shape memory alloy. 

bluShift’s rocket engine, a hybrid of solid and liquid propellant called the Modular Adaptable Rocket Engine for Vehicle Launch (MAREVL), uses a proprietary solid biofuel that the company says is non-toxic, carbon neutral and can be sourced from farms.

Founded in 2014, bluShift Aerospace is a team of eight people who aim to launch tiny satellites into polar orbits. The company is targeting customers with nanosatellites who want more flexibility or control over their orbits.

“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.”

Small satellite launch services could generate $69 billion within the next decade. bluShift alone expects to create 40 new jobs in five years through launching tiny satellites known as cube sats.

The company is planning two larger suborbital rockets, called Stardust 2.0 and Starless Rogue to provide up to 6 minutes of weightlessness for payloads at a cost of up to $300,000. A planned orbital rocket, called Red Dwarf, would then launch nanosatellites of up to 66 lbs.

The company’s core team members started by investing $500,000 of their own money into the project and then won a $125,000 NASA grant, along with funds from the Maine Technology Institute.

If all goes according to company plans bluShift could launch its first Stardust 2.0 rocket by the end of the year.

Maine has the infrastructure to support the industry. Loring Air Force Base at Limestone was the nation’s front line of defense during the Cold War. B-52 bombers armed with nuclear warheads used to patrol the skies on high alert to deter any threat from Russia, and were based here. The base closed in 1994 and the B-52’s decommissioned leaving behind a three-mile runway of reinforced concrete. A perfect launching pad.

Brunswick Landing, a former Navy base on the coast of Maine, could become Mission Control for a statewide spaceport complex.

“Maine has the right resources, we have the people, we have the geographical advantage of being able to launch into polar orbit. All we need to do is believe in ourselves that we can do this,” said Deri. “Stardust has the potential to launch a vibrant aerospace industry right here in Maine. Our team of staff and investors is aiming high and hoping to create an ecologically responsible aerospace industry with the words ‘Made in Maine’ on it.”

Strategic planning for the proposed Maine Spaceport Complex is under way at Brunswick Landing. Following a feasibility study last year, the Maine Space Grant Consortium was awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Maine Technology Institute and NASA to begin the initial planning process. Members of the Space Leadership Council include MRRA’s Steve Levesque and established Brunswick Landing NewSpace businesses bluShift Aerospace and VALT Enterprises.

Because of its world-class airport assets and proven ability to support large aerospace projects, Brunswick Landing is envisioned to be the site of a mission control and research and development space center. Marketing has begun for the airport to both UAS- and NewSpace-focused companies.