LOGAN – Locally developed "green" engines that could possibly "change the small space industry" launched on Sunday with a NASA rocket in Virginia.
Designed and patented by Stephen Whitmore, a professor at Utah State University, and built by his team of aerospace engineering students, the engines – small motors for navigating spacecraft in zero gravity – were first deployed on the 43-foot platform. NASA tested in space – rocket.
The rocket flew into the room for about 7 minutes, reaching a height of 107 miles before jumping back to Earth and landing in the Atlantic Ocean, according to a statement made by Utah State University. When the midsection of the rocket dropped during the flight, the engines were first exposed to space vacuum and fired five times in a successful test.
"This is the first time a US-developed green fuel has been tested in space," Whitmore said in an e-mail message. "It's an exciting time for us because it gives our students an unprecedented industry experience while developing something that could completely change the small space industry."
The bow thrusters are made of printed ABS plastic – the same material as Legos – and burn fuel, which is much cheaper and safer than conventional rocket fuel.
The vast majority of liquid rocket fuels can be exceptionally dangerous and toxic, including hydrazine – a volatile fluid that controls engines that control satellites and small spacecraft. Hydrazine leakage can lead to death, disability, and significant environmental impact of more than $ 10 million, according to the Department of Defense.
"It's overwhelming that (the industry) is still using (hydrazine)," said Marc Bulcher, one of Whitmore's students working on the project, to KSL.com. "No university uses hydrazine in one of their engines because the risks are too big and it's far too expensive."
The team's "green" engines, on the other hand, run on enriched compressed air – essentially what divers need to breathe, Bulcher said. And not only are the engines safer, but the price is much more manageable.
"(NASA) is studying two green fuels, but the thing is, they spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this stuff, and we're a university, we have a couple of doctoral students, and that's been going on for seven years." Bulcher said. "(NASA) launched and tested their first green fuel here on a SpaceX mission in April, so we actually beat them technically until we dropped them."
The team's next task is to determine whether the exhaust fumes of the engines contaminate an optical sensor nearby during takeoff. If burnt clean, technology could revolutionize the space industry, according to Whitmore.
The payload of the USU was one of only four universities selected to fly the rocket.
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