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Startup bluShift Aerospace launches its 1st commercial biofuel rocket from Maine

A small rocket billed as the world's first commercial booster powered by biofuel has launched from Maine.

The Brunswick-based startup bluShift Aerospace launched its first rocket prototype, called Stardust 1.0, on Sunday (Jan. 31), despite freezing temperatures and two false starts. The rocket didn't reach space (or even a mile up), but marked a major milestone for a company aiming to launch bespoke missions tailored for tiny satellites.

"It went perfectly," bluShift CEO Sascha Deri told reporters after the launch, which lifted off Sunday afternoon from a snow-covered runway at the Loring Commerce Center in Limestone, Maine. "It landed right where we were hoping for and where we were planning for. It couldn't have been better than that." 

Stardust 1.0 is a small sounding rocket powered by a "bio-derived" solid fuel to act as as a testbed for future bluShift rockets capable of launching tiny nanosatellites. It stands 20 feet tall (6 meters) and  can carry 17 lbs. (8 kilograms) of payload.

Video: Meet the bluShift Aerospace team for smallsat rocket launches

A bluShift Aerospace Stardust 1.0 rocket launches on its first low-altitude test flight from a runway at the Loring Commerce Centre in Limestone, Maine on Jan. 31, 2021.    (Image credit: bluShift Aerospace)

It took several tries for bluShift to launch Stardust 1.0. A launch attempt on Jan. 14 was prevented by bad weather. Then on Sunday, a pressure issue with an oxidizer valve prevented the rocket from lifting off, even as its solid fuel ignited. 

"It's not launching!" someone could be heard saying in bluShift's live webcast. A second attempt about 90 minutes later failed when the rocket's igniter didn't kick off as planned. The company also battled freezing temperatures and network issues during the countdown.

But the third time was the charm when, in mid-afternoon, Stardust 1.0 launched off its support rail, flew over 4,000 feet (1,219 m) up and then deployed a parachute to fall back to Earth. A drogue chute did pop free unexpectedly and was retrieved by two small girls and their parents using a snowmobile (several of which were on hand from volunteers to recover the rocket), Deri said.

"We couldn't be more delighted than [with] what happened today," Deri said. 

Founded in 2014, bluShift Aerospace is a team of eight people who aim to launch tiny satellites into polar orbits from the coast of Maine. The company is targeting customers with nanosatellites who want more flexibility or control over their orbits that may be unavailable by riding as a secondary payload with another launch provider like SpaceX or Rocket Lab.

"We want to be the Uber to space providing that true nano-launch service for nanosatellites," Deri said before the launch.

The Stardust 1.0 rocket floats back to Earth under its main parachute after a successful first low-altitude launch test from Loring Commerce Center in Limestone, Maine on Jan. 31, 2021.  (Image credit: bluShift Aerospace)

To do that, the company is planning two larger suborbital rockets, called Stardust 2.0 and its bigger cousin the 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. (30 kg to orbit for about $60,000 a kilogram.

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 cheaply sourced from farms across America." It uses nitrous oxide bubbled with oxygen as an oxidizer, Deri said. 

It took several tries for bluShift Aerospace to launch Stardust 1.0. Here, the rocket ignites its engine but did not lift off due to a pressure issue with its main oxidizer valve. The rocket finally lifted of on its third attempt.  (Image credit: bluShift Aerospace)

Sunday's Stardust 1.0 launch carried three primary payloads: a cubesat built by students of Falmouth High School students with a GoPro camera, radio transmitter and sensors onboard; an experiment by Kellogg's Research Labs of Nashua, New Hampshire to test the vibration-dampening effects of nitinol, a nickel-titanium shape memory alloy; and a cubesat enclosure filled with stroopwafels, the Dutch wafer cookies, for the software development company Rocket Insights as an homage to their Amsterdam-based parent company Dept. 

The rocket is also carried some bluShift pens for future investors. 

Deri said bluShift hoped to use Sunday's launch to draw investor interest as the company seeks to raise $650,000 to fund the development of Stardust 2.0 and its successors. The company's core team members invested $500,000 of their own money into the project and won a $125,000 NASA grant, along with funds from the Maine Technology Institute, to fuel their effort so far. 

The company is also looking for a new launch site Maine's coast to handle its larger rockets. If all goes well, the bluShift could launch its first Stardust 2.0 rocket by the end of the year, Deri said after Sunday's launch.

"We hope to demonstrate to the world that Maine is open for aerospace."

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Tariq Malik

SPACE.COM EDITOR IN CHIEF — Tariq joined the Space.com team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.