The next step for SPG Inc. is outer space.
Arif Karabeyoglu said the company, which has been testing its rocket prototypes in Butte since 2009, has commercially viable technology and is looking to identify partners to help get the science into orbit.
The Space Propulsion Group Inc. and the Montana Aerospace Development Association held a two-day media event this week at the test facility, located west of Butte.
The company successfully test-fired two different rocket technologies — an ammonia-fueled version on Thursday and two different sized hybrid fuel rockets on Friday. It also brought in public relations professionals who specialize in aerospace to help increase SPG Inc.’s reach and reputation within the space industry.
“We’re there,” said Karabeyoglu, SPG’s president. “I think we are at a game-changing trend of how we send things and people into space.”
Karabeyoglu arrived in Butte in 2009 with nothing more than an idea — an idea in which the Air Force, NASA, and commercial aerospace companies were interested — but a mostly untested idea nonetheless.
“I would be lying if I said I was extremely confident,” he said.
But it wasn’t just the Stanford University spinoff that came with questions. Montana Aerospace Development Association and the Butte AeroTec facility were awfully low profile as well.
“They didn’t know us, didn’t know this facility,” said Dave Micheletti, chairman of MADA. “But I had a certain amount of confidence or else we never would have entered into this agreement.”
Yet, its first year was an unmitigated success. Tests on small rocket motors went well and the 16th such firing was as close as Karabeyoglu would get to a “Eureka!” moment. It was the first time the motor burned stable, efficient and safely throughout the entirety of the test. Suddenly, SPG thought its project had legs.
So by January 2011, it upped the ante and started testing a much larger motor. It proved to be too much, too soon.
A possible leaky valve caused an explosion during the first test of the larger motor; the blast blew debris across the area and destroyed a $168,000 building.
“We were sloppy,” said Karabeyoglu. “But that made us restart, re-engineer … (the accident) really improved our product.”
In 18 months since, the larger rocket has been improved, and Karabeyoglu said Friday’s 10-second test was the longest. He said they would have to review the data, but felt it went well.
The day before, SPG Inc. ran a 40-second test of an ammonia-fueled rocket motor, which could be a cheaper, safer and more sustainable alternative to diesel fuels. Ammonia has a narrow flammable range and contains no carbon, thus is not a greenhouse gas. Karabeyoglu said their testing with that fuel is well behind the commercial-readiness of the hybrid rockets, yet he still felt it has possible commercial applications.
Both SPG and MADA said the two companies will continue to work together. Butte is not a good option for launching into space, but Karabeyoglu said they would continue to test their prototypes here.
And Micheletti said SPG’s success can only bring good press to MADA and Butte.
“We have a solid long term partner that is fully committed to working here,” he said. “Their success has enhanced MADA’s credibility and it really established Butte AeroTec.”