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Mars Ascent Vehicle

This photo from August 2017 shows a test of the experimental fuel made from ordinary candle wax that rocket scientists based out of Butte hope will one day enable NASA scientists to take soil samples from Mars to bring back to Earth.  

It’s conceivable that one day NASA scientists will be able to hold soil taken from Mars — thanks to an aerospace program based in Butte.

David Micheletti, director of Montana Aerospace Development Association, told The Montana Standard last week that Space Propulsion Group, Inc., is trying to develop a fuel for NASA made from paraffin wax — essentially candle wax — for a rocket that may one day bring Mars soil samples to Earth.

The way it could work is a mother ship will travel approximately seven months to get to Mars, then hover and orbit while the Mars Ascent Vehicle (referred to by its acronym MAV) takes flight from the mother ship and lands on the red planet. A robot will then collect soil samples and put the samples into the Mars Ascent Vehicle.

The Mars Ascent Vehicle will return to the mother ship and be flown back to Earth.

In order for the Mars Ascent Vehicle to survive the extreme heat and extreme cold that exists on Mars, NASA needs a fuel for the rocket that can stand up to those weather pressures.

“Wax might work,” Micheletti said.

SPG has been working on the paraffin wax as Mars’ rocket fuel model for years. Originally based out of Sunnyvale, Calif., near Stanford University, SPG developed the paraffin wax as a fuel for an Air Force project. When SPG began its experimental testing at the defunct Solvay site in 2009, the engineers were then testing the fuel for the Air Force.  

The Air Force project ended in 2012 but NASA got interested in the fuel in 2014.

Micheletti works part-time for SPG as the vice president of business development and program management. If SPG’s work continues to develop with NASA, the small company of 10 employees will likely double its numbers, Micheletti said.

But that could be some time in the future. SPG has been testing the experimental rocket fuel every other week since July. The tests will continue through the end of January. At that point, NASA will consider the tests and sometime next year will likely make a decision about the way forward. Micheletti said it’s entirely likely NASA will want more tests.

“The object of ground testing is to push the technology to its limits. They want to know what those limitations are,” Micheletti said.

But when NASA has seen enough testing, SPG hopes the next step will be to start developing the actual Mars Ascent Vehicle based on the fuel technology. The company intends for the design work to take place in Butte.

They also hope the Mars rocket will be built in Butte, as well.

The company is based at the defunct Solvay site, 8 miles west of Butte in the Montana Connections Business Development Park. The rocket testing is within sight of the mostly buried concrete tank that contains 500,000 gallons of highly flammable phosphorous waste. The waste is leftover from decades of processing phosphorous, mostly for detergent. Belgium-based Solvay purchased the site in 2011 from Rhodia and inherited its status as a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act site. Known more commonly by its acronym, RCRA, the EPA designation is similar to Superfund. 

Micheletti called the risk posed by the rocket testing's proximity to the phosphorous waste “minimal.”

“We evaluated it with Solvay. If they felt there was a risk, they wouldn’t have allowed it,” Micheletti said.

Solvay project site manager Dan Bersanti said he agrees with Micheletti.

“They have a blast mat over the top of the engine, deflector shields and it’s pretty well enclosed. Any line of fire to the (tank) is mitigated. They’re in pretty good shape,” Bersanti said.

An accident with the fuel did occur in 2011 and destroyed a county-owned building, but no one was hurt. The incident had no impact on the phosphorous waste.

But because of that rocket misfire, SPG redesigned the testing area, operating now in an outdoor facility that is surrounded by barricades and has a roof made of interwoven steel cable.

“If an incident occurs, the debris will be contained in the test cell,” Micheletti said.

Solvay is making plans to build a “mud plant,” which is projected to begin processing the phosphorous waste by summer 2020. Before work on that plant begins, SPG will move its testing site and other equipment to a more remote location on the western side of Solvay’s 150-acre site.

In addition to the contract with NASA, SPG recently acquired a new contract with the Air Force for another testing project. That means testing will continue on into next year, even after the testing for the NASA Mars’ vehicle project comes to an end in early 2018.

The reason SPG chose to do their work at Solvay was, in part, because of the low cost of using the site. Micheletti called Montana “business friendly.”

“There aren’t many test facilities that are private. Most government-owned ones are hard for small companies to access and afford,” he said. “We found a niche.”

Jim Kambich, president and CEO of MERDI (Montana Economic Revitalization and Development Institute), which tries to bring new business to southwest Montana and the state, said his group ultimately hopes this is the beginning of an “aerospace cluster,” in the Mining City.

“Montana is ripe for this type of economic development,” Kambich said.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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