Opener Rocket

Jet engine testing at the Montana Aerospace Development Association research site south of Butte.

Steven Cordes, provided

2016 was a good year for our state, and 2017 will be an even greater. Our economy will grow in conjunction with the technological talent enshrined in Montanans.

Just before Christmas, I had the chance to meet with Dave Micheletti of the Montana Aerospace Development Association. MADA is a “state-wide aerospace and advanced energy technology advocacy and economic development organization.” The MADA’s board of directors includes legislators, academics, and business leaders from across the state. Currently, MADA is working on aeronautic projects with NASA and could restart their former project with the U.S. Air Force.

MADA started operations in early 2002 and utilizes the research site south of Butte at the defunct phosphorus plant in partnership with the Solvay Corporation and Silver Bow County. On my visit, I was opportune enough to see their testing facilities in person. In the far reaches of the property, there were concrete laden-structures with blast roofs that were apt at containing externalities from rocket fuel research. In one of the main test facilities, there was a large mechanical rig that simulated jet engine conditions in flight.

Currently, MADA is working with the Space Propulsion Group to test rocket fuel for NASA. SPG was founded by a couple of Stanford University affiliates who recently relocated their headquarters to the Thornton Building on Broadway Street in Uptown Butte. SPG’s core product is a paraffin-wax fuel that utilizes mixtures of nitrogen oxidizers. The propellant's main advantage is that it combines the benefits of both liquid and solid propellants. The aim is to develop a fuel type that can operate in Martian conditions, where such temperatures are detriments to traditional liquid fuels.

MADA previously researched aerospace projects for the Air Force. Compared to NASA, the military’s goals were a bit different: “Their interest in the technology is to put things into orbit, like small satellites,” said Micheletti. This research was ongoing for several years but was put on pause a few years back to reevaluate the results. Auspiciously, the project could return to Butte-Silver Bow later this year. Given this, the MADA could be very busy in the upcoming spring, as well as the county.

Montana’s technology and research industry is advancing at a rapid rate. Montana’s innate advantages include ample land and our industrial facilities. For example, the SPG was able to efficiently utilize the county's industrial facilities and large open spaces to safely and securely research jet fuel for space travel.

Jason Zeng is the technology columnist for The Montana Standard. He can be reached at Jason.Zeng@mtstandard.com.

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