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USU experiment that could ‘change the spacecraft industry’ launches on NASA rocket

*This project was completed in-part with funding provided by the USTAR University Technology Acceleration Grants (UTAG) program.

(, by Liesl Nielsen) LOGAN — Locally-developed “green” thrusters that could potentially “change the small spacecraft industry” launched Sunday on a NASA rocket in Virginia.

Designed and patented by Utah State University professor Stephen Whitmore, and built by his team of aerospace engineering students, the thrusters — small motors used to orient spacecraft in zero gravity — were tested in space for the first time on NASA’s 43-foot-tall rocket.

The rocket flew in space for approximately 7 minutes, reaching an altitude of 107 miles before parachuting back to Earth and landing in the Atlantic Ocean, according to an emailed statement from Utah State University. When the rocket’s mid-section fell away during the flight, the thrusters were exposed for the first time to the vacuum of space and fired five times in a successful test.

“This is the first time a USA-developed green propellant has been flight tested in space,” Whitmore said in an emailed statement. “It’s an exciting time for us because this gives our students unparalleled industry experience, and at the same time, we’re developing something that could completely change the small spacecraft industry.”

The thrusters are made with printed ABS plastic — the same material used to make Legos — and burn fuel that is much cheaper and safer than conventional liquid rocket fuel.

The vast majority of liquid rocket fuels can be exceptionally dangerous and toxic, including hydrazine — a volatile liquid that powers thrusters controlling satellites and small spacecrafts. If hydrazine leaks, it can lead to death, disability and significant environmental impact exceeding $10 million, according to the Department of Defense.

“It’s mind-blowing that (the industry) is still using (hydrazine),” Marc Bulcher, one of Whitmore’s grad students working on the project, told “No university is using hydrazine in any of their thrusters because the risks are too great and it’s just way too expensive.”

The team’s “green” thrusters, in contrast, run on enriched, compressed air — essentially what scuba divers would use to breathe, Bulcher said. And not only are the thrusters safer, but the price tag is much more manageable.

“(NASA) is studying two green propellants, but, the thing is, they’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this stuff, and we’re a university. We’ve got a couple of grad students, and this has been seven years in the making,” Bulcher said. “(NASA’s) actually launching and testing their first green propellant on a SpaceX mission here in April, so we actually technically beat them to the punch.”

The team’s next job is to determine if the exhaust plumes from the thrusters contaminated a nearby optical sensor during the launch. If they burned clean, the technology could revolutionize the space industry, according to Whitmore.

USU’s payload was one of only four universities’ selected to fly on the rocket.


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