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A Year Later – Fuel of Tests

February 27, 2018

by bluShift Aerospace

A Year Later – Fuel of Tests

It’s been over a year since we’ve updated our blog, but it’s been our busiest year yet. After being awarded the MTI Seed Grant, the team doubled down on development of our proprietary hybrid rocket engine.

A Gross of Tests for a Better Rocket Fuel

In 2017 bluShift performed over 140 tests to improve its hybrid rocket fuel formulation.

During this past 12 months we performed an amazing 140+ hybrid rocket engine tests We improved the formulation of our bio-fuel to the point where we now see a 8-16% performance improvement over current state-of-the-art fuels used for hybrid rocket engines. When it comes to designing and building a rocket, every point of increased efficiency means either more payload capacity the same sized rocket or or a smaller rocket with lower costs can be made.

The Four Seasons of Rocket Engine Development

Our engine tests continued into the winter, and as you can imagine, weather conditions in Maine were less than friendly at times to basic logistics of carrying out those tests. We encountered everything from 18? of snow blocking our access to thick ice locking up the entrance gates (requiring the use of a propane torch).

From the Bitter Cold comes Better Solutions

Normally after an engine test the outer casing was too hot too touch for more than a few seconds. But in the depths of the Maine winter, we found ourselves soaking up the heat through our insulated leather gloves just to get our fingers moving again to change out the fuel grain. It’s no wonder most rocket companies are conveniently located in warmer climates. However, being Maine-tough has its advantages. Those great temperature swings helped us make a discovery…

Is Maine like Mars in the Winter?

From 90°+F in the summer to -20°F in the winter, our fuel grains were exposed to a wide temperature range, causing them to expand and contract. Two things would happen – cracking and fuel casing separation. Neither of those are desirable for our ultimate rocket. So in the depths of the winter we dived in to solve these challenges. It took about 40 iterations but we finally landed upon a solution. We made some changes to our fuel casing and the composition of the fuel grain itself that prevented separation in even temperatures of -112°F and minimized the cracking to the point where the fuel would not separate from itself.

Without the challenges of the Maine season we probably would have never tackled this challenge. But you might ask – why are temperature swings even important? All you have to do is think about the great temperature swings a rocket will experience throughout its flight – even if it’s launch from the cozy temps of Cape Canaveral. At launch it could start off in high humidity and the upper 80’s. But during the final phase of the flight the last stage experiences the brutal sun on one side but the deep chill of dark space on the opposite.

Or, as CalTech and NASA has imagined it, you could deploy a hybrid rocket on to the surface of Mars to send back surface samples back to Earth. While it’s waiting on the surface for months at a time temperatures can get down to as low as -100°C (-148°F). Be sure to catch Dr. Ashley Karp’s Mark 2017 lecture covering the topic here.

(oh, and yeah, Maine is still not as cold as Mars is in the winter ;))

Scaling Up for 2018

vertical rocket engine test stand

Vertical test stand for the hybrid rocket engine tests undergoes repairs.

The bulk of our 140+ tests took place in a smaller test rig. This test stand enabled us to rapidly perform the fuel recipe test iterations and reduce the costs of fuel and oxidizer. Now that we have narrowed down a formulation which excels, it is time for us to perform larger tests in our vertical test rig increasing the engine size. The focus of these upcoming tests is less on the formulation of the fuel but on improving the efficiency of combustion. And then it will be honing the performance of the rocket nozzle itself.

Standing at 18 feet tall, our vertical test stand better simulates the thermodynamics of a hybrid rocket engine that’s about to be launched. This setup is as compared to the traditional horizontal test stands frequently seen in smaller rocket engine tests. Since we’re working on a hybrid rocket, the combustion chamber is encased in the fuel itself – fuel which melts and drips. A horizontally mounted engine will hide some of those dynamics and the issues it can cause, whereas you can more readily see them when the engine is vertical.

In 2017 we performed a shorter series of tests using that vertical test stand but we immediately encountered two issues: 1) stability of combustion and 2) reliable ignition. After a blow-out that damaged the injection bulkhead we back-burnered test rig in favor of the small, faster iteration test stand.

As of April this year, we finished repairs on the vertical test stand. We improved the design of the injection bulkhead. And to our delight we ramped up the volume of the oxidizer injection without notable combustion instabilities. Last but not least we improved the ignition reliability. However, we still have a ways to go to meet our goal for reliability.

Conceptual drawing of bluShift proof-of-concept rocket, the Brown Dwarf 5.

Conceptual drawing of bluShift proof-of-concept rocket, the Brown Dwarf 5.

The Future is Bright – with Clean Rocket Launches!

Once we have completed optimizing the efficiency of our rocket engine and the nozzle, we will be moving to an exciting next stage – building our first proof-of-concept rocket, name the Brown Dwarf 5! As early as 2019 we hope to test launch the rocket up to 15,000 feet. Then, a few months afterwards, launch it to space and back as a sounding rocket with a 5kg payload.

Once this demonstration rocket has successfully launched, bluShift will push ahead in the development of its nano-satellite launch vehicle (aka rocket), the Red Dwarf 50. A 3-stage rocket, it will be capable of carrying up to 50kg of these small satellites, commonly referred to as ‘CubeSats’, into low Earth orbit. More on that to come in upcoming months.

bluShift logo T-shirts, mugs and even baby outfits!

bluShift T-shirts, mugs and even baby outfits are now available!

bluShift Gear is Now Available!

Internally, many of us wear bluShift gear all the time – whether its at the test site itself, taking a run in the woods or enjoying a brew at the local Flight Deck here at Brunswick Landing.

Now you too can get bluShift T-shirts, mugs or even a bluShift emboldened baby Bodysuit! A portion of the sale of each item will go to help fund our research, development and eventual launches of these Maine-made rockets. Click here to buy your bluShift gear today!

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A Gross of Tests for a Better Rocket Fuel

January 12, 2018

by bluShift Aerospace

A Gross of Tests for a Better Rocket Fuel

During this past 12 months we performed an amazing 140+ hybrid rocket engine tests We improved the formulation of our bio-fuel to the point where we now see a 8-16% performance improvement over current state-of-the-art fuels used for hybrid rocket engines. When it comes to designing and building a rocket, every point of increased efficiency means either more payload capacity the same sized rocket or or a smaller rocket with lower costs can be made.

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From the Bitter Cold comes Better Solutions

December 11, 2017

by bluShift Aerospace

From the Bitter Cold comes Better Solutions

Normally after an engine test the outer casing was too hot too touch for more than a few seconds. But in the depths of the Maine winter, we found ourselves soaking up the heat through our insulated leather gloves just to get our fingers moving again to change out the fuel grain. It’s no wonder most rocket companies are conveniently located in warmer climates. However, being Maine-tough has its advantages. Those great temperature swings helped us make a discovery…

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Is Maine like Mars in the Winter?

December 10, 2017

by bluShift Aerospace

Is Maine like Mars in the Winter?

From 90°+F in the summer to -20°F in the winter, our fuel grains were exposed to a wide temperature range, causing them to expand and contract. Two things would happen – cracking and fuel casing separation. Neither of those are desirable for our ultimate rocket. So in the depths of the winter we dived in to solve these challenges. It took about 40 iterations but we finally landed upon a solution.We made some changes to our fuel casing and the composition of the fuel grain itself that prevented separation in even temperatures of -112°F and minimized the cracking to the point where the fuel would not separate from itself.Without the challenges of the Maine season we probably would have never tackled this challenge. But you might ask – why are temperature swings even important? All you have to do is think about the great temperature swings a rocket will experience throughout its flight – even if it’s launch from the cozy temps of Cape Canaveral. At launch it could start off in high humidity and the upper 80’s. But during the final phase of the flight the last stage experiences the brutal sun on one side but the deep chill of dark space on the opposite.Or, as CalTech and NASA has imagined it, you could deploy a hybrid rocket on to the surface of Mars to send back surface samples back to Earth. While it’s waiting on the surface for months at a time temperatures can get down to as low as -100°C (-148°F). Be sure to catch Dr. Ashley Karp’s Mark 2017 lecture covering the topic.(oh, and yeah, Maine is still not as cold as Mars is in the winter ;))

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Ignition System – Fail Often and Fail Early

July 27, 2017

by bluShift Aerospace

Ignition System – Fail Often and Fail Early

The last several weeks have been largely consumed with pressure testing of the oxidizer system. This week we started work on assembling the circuitry and piping for the ignition system. We’re using a version ignition system that we had developed and tested previously in 2015, but with a different oxidizer.

Incremental Failure Fun

As we go through the assembly process we are testing each element, to make sure it functions as expected – as opposed to slapping everything together and “see how it goes”. We have learned the hard way that if you don’t test your assembly and test a system in its components we wind up with a multitude of bugs to solve.

Not only is it difficult to identify all the right sources of the problems in this situation, you’re kicking yourself for not addressing the issues early on – saving yourself time in the end. Put in better terms we must “fail often and fail early”.

Rockets Can Get a Case of Engine Knocking Too

Our key goals for this system are threefold. One to obviously ignite our bio-derived fuel. Two, to do so consistently and easily. And three, to avoid “hard starts”.  The last two may be the most challenging based upon past test experiences.

In a hard start the engine ignites more energetically than expected, raising combustion chamber pressures potentially well beyond their expected normal operating point. As a result, we would potentially see damage to our injection and ignition bulkhead, as well as our nozzle – all of which we have invested so much time in manufacturing.  We really want to get it right.

First we’ll testing the ignition system with essentially no combustion chamber. Then add a “dry” combustion chamber (no fuel), followed by  testing with fuel but no nozzle. And then lastly with the nozzle attached.

Here’s to failing soon and creating solutions just as quickly.

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Test Stand Construction, Quicksand and Ignition Tests

June 27, 2017

by bluShift Aerospace

Test Stand Construction, Quicksand and Ignition Tests

bluShift received funding from the Maine Technology Institute Seed Grant a couple weeks ago. With the money this provided, we were able to hire a new team member, Brook, who is a former artist turned mechanical engineer. Brooks skills in mechanical engineering, programming and heavy construction were quickly put to the test.

April Showers Bring May Rocket Engine Tests…

Two weeks ago, Sascha and Brook, under drizzling conditions, got to work setting up the foundation for a new test stand up at Brunswick Landing. Part of the test stand was assembled the next day with one and two ton concrete blocks.

Sascha was impressed at how little force was required to move the blocks when they were suspended from the rented lifter by a chain. With little static friction the two ton blocks were easily positioned, resembling work done in a low gravity environment. He commented that moving them by hand gave an intuitive sense of how little force can be applied to an object in space to get it spinning.

Brook atop of the rocket test stand

Brook celebrating getting the test stand construction under way.

They continued assembling the test stand the following week, with plans to raise it to 18 feet in height as well as putting an additional protective concrete barrier into place opposite of the “business end” of the test stand.

April Showers Also Bring Quicksand

This past week more concrete blocks were delivered along with the heavy lifter rental unit. With the experience they had from installing the blocks from the previous week adding blocks to the stand seemed to go more quickly. Even the construction of the protective barrier opposite of the test stand seemed to go smoothly. That is, smoothly until they went to lift up the final concrete piece…

The final piece was a jersey barrier with a pole secured to its side to be placed at the very top of the test stand. To scoop up the barrier they decided it was best to approach it with the heavy lifter by venturing onto a section of the former Naval fuel depot property they hadn’t yet driven across. Bad idea.

Going for the last block of concrete and we got stuck in quicksand.

Going for the last block of concrete and we got stuck in quicksand.

Brook quickly found the sand below the lifter was not only getting softer but wetter and suddenly found he couldn’t go forward even with the 4×4 engaged. Desperate to get out, he reversed only to have the lifter sink further. Moving the wheels at all made the situation worse. The lifter was stuck in quicksand, and they literally could hear the “blub, blub” from the sand as the machine sunk further down.

Two hours of digging, wedging rocks and sticks under the wheels proved fruitless to get the lifter out of what seemed like its final resting place. Fortunately, just then, the rental company showed up with a tractor trailer truck and the driver, Roger, kindly offered to use the truck’s winch to pull the lifter to safety.

With the lifter free again, we quickly snagged that final concrete piece and carefully placed it at the top of the test stand. Mission accomplished!

Final concrete block put into place for the vertical rocket test stand.

Final concrete block put into place for the vertical rocket test stand.

Up next  we have a few reinforcements we will be doing to the test stand itself, some landscaping and then shortly the rigging and cabling will be installed. Plans are to ultimately power the tests using an off-grid solar power system. If we’re going to build a green rocket, we’ve got to use green power.

In other news…

Brook also got to work with Ward who has been coding the PLC, or programmable logic controller. The PLC is the brain of the oxidizer and ignition system. It operates the valves and collects data from the sensors. We had previously developed in-house software to do this control and monitoring but opted for a PLC due to the flexibility it will give us to modify changes during tests.

Pressure testing continued two weeks ago. After an initial, unsuccessful pressure test, the ignition bulkhead sealing surface was polished and succeeded in holding pressure.

We hit a win this week with a successful ignition.

Successful ignition test!

3, 2, 1 Ignition!

Two weeks ago we attempted to also ignite a fuel that was pumped into the bulkhead. The fuel was successfully ignited, although the positioning of the ignitors was not opportune for this task. Fortunately, this week David, Luke and Sascha were able to make a few minor modifications to the ignitors and able to quickly achieve the desired ignition flame.

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bluShift Awarded Seed Grant from Maine Technology Institute

March 27, 2017

by bluShift Aerospace

bluShift Awarded Seed Grant from Maine Technology Institute

To our delight, we just learned that bluShift was conditionally awarded Maine Technology Institute’s Seed Grant. This exciting news enables us to accelerate testing of our engines, purchasing of test equipment and supplies plus open a part-time contract position for a “Rocket Technician” in the Brunswick region. Perhaps you know of someone who has the technical background, hands on experience, hard-working, passion-for-space background we’re looking for – have them apply to our Craiglist job posting.

We’re grateful to the folks at MTI for working with bluShift and enabling the continued development of our aerospace startup, as well as the support from the many folks there as we seek out larger funds at the federal level.

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bluShift Awarded Phase Zero Grant from MTI

January 27, 2017

by bluShift Aerospace

bluShift Awarded Phase Zero Grant from MTI

bluShift Aerospace, a startup aerospace company based in Brunswick, Maine, is proud to announce it was awarded the Phase 0 grant from the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) early January, 2017. The grant will enable the company to employ additional resources in seeking a larger grant from NASA’s Small Business Research Initiative (SBIR). If awarded, the federal grant will enable bluShift to accelerate the research and development of its green fuel rocket for launching nano-satellites into orbit. Funds from the federal grant will be used to purchase equipment and supplies for testing, as well as hire additional technical personnel at its Brunswick headquarters.

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bluShift Moves HQ to Brunswick, Maine

December 27, 2016

by bluShift Aerospace

bluShift Moves HQ to Brunswick, Maine

Mid-December 2016 bluShift Aerospace officially moved its headquarters from Boxborough, Massachusetts to Maine, located at TechPlace in the former Navy Air Station in Brunswick.

Started in 2014, bluShift is in the R&D phase of developing a small launch vehicle that uses a green, renewable source for its fuel. The company is targeting customers such as universities, corporations and agencies of the US government who want to launch tiny satellites, called ‘cubesats’, into low Earth orbit. Currently there is more than year long backlog for any organization that wishes to launch these nanosatellites. bluShift seeks to not only service this market, but to do so at a competitive cost with environmentally friendly sources of fuel.

“We are excited to officially locate in at TechPlace in Maine. The incubator is particularly friendly to aerospace start up companies, offering an impressive array of machining, tools and soon composite layup work areas that will enable us to accelerate our R&D without enormous upfront capital expenses,” said Sascha Deri, CEO of bluShift. “Additionally, the region is a rich source of advanced machining and composites talent and resources that we plan on tapping. Having been raised in Maine, it’s been a dream of mine to locate an exciting startup here and show off to the world what hard-working, Maine ingenuity can achieve.”

bluShift is currently in the engine and fuel testing phases of its R&D, seeking funds both at a state and federal level to prove out its technology and accelerate the development of a full-sized launch vehicle.

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Pressure Testing of Entire Oxidizer System & Bulkhead

November 27, 2016

by bluShift Aerospace

Pressure Testing of Entire Oxidizer System & Bulkhead

New Member to the bluShift Team

This week we were thrilled to have Luke Saindon join the bluShift team.  Arriving this week seemed especially appropriate, as Luke’s college thesis from the University of Maine was on the development of an oxidizer flow control system for hybrid rockets. In addition to his Mechanical Engineering education, he also works for an aerospace company here in the northeast, has prior intern experience at NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center and in leading a regional student team developing sounding rockets.

Full System Pressure Test Success

Both this past weekend and earlier this week we achieved further pressure test successes. We put the entire oxidizer system along with the injection bulkhead to a high pressure test using water. Once again we achieved success with no leaks. Since we have to partially disassemble the system after the tests, there continues to be a pleasant sense of surprise that the system holds tight after each re-assembly.

In addition to holding pressure well above planned nominal run conditions, we also began examining the spray pattern of the injection bulkhead by opening up the main flow valve and filming. Initial findings look promising. Further tests will be performed with a relatively safe self-pressurizing gas similar to our oxidizer for improved simulation of the injection nozzles’ performance and pressure testing.

Flow Meter Backup Plan

In parallel, Ward Holloway is working on a custom designed Venturi flow meter for the oxidizer system. We have reason to believe that the current flow meter will not perform continuously to the levels of rigor we have in store for it. So we are working on this custom flow meter as a more robust backup. Plans are to begin machining the meter within a few weeks.

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The Finishing Design Touches

September 12, 2016

by bluShift Aerospace

The Finishing Design Touches

Great News! The design phase is complete, and our resident manufacturing engineer has finished the CAM work for our rocket engine nozzle and is preparing to machine it this week. This is going to be a particularly tricky endeavor, partly because of the nozzle itself, but mostly because it is being made entirely out of a graphite material. This is not the graphite you would ordinarily find in pencils. While probably just as ‘dusty’, the kind of graphite we’re using is specifically developed for rocket nozzles. It is designed to withstand the heat, pressure, caustic chemicals, and other stresses at work on it. Stay tuned for any sneak previews we may post from manufacturing.

As for our software and computer engineers, they are continuing their work on a completely custom software and hardware package for our test, which may seem a little extreme to some of you. We need to measure the force output from the engine, engine vibrations, and fuel and oxidizer consumption. While the infrastructure for our fuel and oxidizer system may be a more traditional design, we are paying close attention to it. We take safety and reliability very seriously here at bluShift. Not only do we want full control over our engine and fueling system, but we want the ability to flood the entire system with a fire suppressing gas in the unlikely event of an accident. Current pre-built packages are already on the market; however, our plans would exceed the capabilities of these available options. Our upcoming test will be an assessment on what our software and computer teams have cooked up, as much as it is for the engine and fuel.

Another exciting piece of tech that we are working on is the fuel injection system, which we are putting the final touches on. Like a lot of other pieces of our project, we believe we are trying something innovative with our injection system. It is our goal that these designs will not only reduce the total empty mass, but aid in flight stability as well.

It is safe to say that we are entering the ‘hardware phase’ for this new engine. These next few weeks are going to be very exciting as everything that had only previously existed as equations, drawings, and code, begins to take shape in tangible rocket components.

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Welcome to bluShift

September 4, 2016

by bluShift Aerospace

Welcome to bluShift

Here at bluShift we have been ramping up our operations in preparation for our larger diameter, proof-of-concept rocket engine test. In the last few months we have refined our company goals, designed our rocket motor, nozzle, and test stand. We began work on our custom software for controlling our new rocket, and have begun negotiations to gain access to a testing site. With the launch of our website we look forward to sharing regular updates with you on our progress.

Nozzle & Motor

We kept two things in mind when designing our motor: keep it environmentally friendly and low cost. Our first prototype was a small – 25mm and about 225N – but successful convergent-divergent nozzle, and proved that our fuel mixture has potential. While our fuel mixture and nozzle design are currently under wraps, we can reveal that our scaled proof-of-concept prototype is 100mm in diameter, and we are anticipating approximately 2.2KN of thrust.

We faced a lot of challenges  with our innovative nozzle design. Ultimately this nozzle choice will not only reduce our cost, but should increase system reliability by reducing the number of mechanical parts that could potentially fail. We have just finalized the design after it successfully passed FEA (Finite Element Analysis). Now the model has been passed over to manufacturing for CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) design and actual machining with the Tormach PCNC 1100. With a little luck, we’ll have our physical nozzle shortly after the start of the New Year.

Test Site & Plans

Our CEO, Sascha Deri, has been talking with a local municipality to gain access to an old quarry they own. This site would provide us with an ideal location to perform our smaller tests, as it is both close by and shielded from any residential or commercial properties by the surrounding woods and geography. If the negotiation goes well and the weather is favorable, it may only be a month or two more until our next round of test firing. We will keep you updated as we work out a deal with the town and get closer to the test date.

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Injection Bulkhead Pressure Testing Success

March 27, 2016

by bluShift Aerospace

Injection Bulkhead Pressure Testing Success

Before static ground tests can begin on our larger hybrid rocket engine we water pressure test each segment of the fuel and oxidizer system. Last night David and Sascha put the injection and ignition bulkhead we had designed and manufactured to the test. Sascha gave odds of 1 out of 1000 to David that the test would not leak on the first try, after experiencing a multitude of painful, leaky rounds of testing the oxidizer system with Shawn.  To our amazement on the very first try we successfully tested the bulkhead up to test conditions with an added margin with no leak outside of the feed hose line.

The test is performed by using a very high pressure hand water pump. Despite the photo above seems to indicate, when we do these tests we move ourselves and the hand pump behind heavy metal plating in case anything “pops”.

There was talk of buying a lottery ticket afterwards, but David and Sascha decided their luck had been used up for the evening.

Pressure testing of the entire oxidizer systems and bulkhead are up next.

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