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Rockets tested in Butte
Courtesy photo space propulsion group is shown testing hybrid-fuel propulsion rockets at the AeroTec facility southwest of Butte earlier this month.

A company tested four hybrid-fuel propulsion rockets in Butte recently in the first experiment at the Butte AeroTec facility.

Space Propulsion Group, an offshoot of Stanford University, conducted the approximately eight-second tests March 6-8, according to company president Arif Karabeyoglu.

Karabeyoglu called the tests of the 11-inch rockets using paraffin wax and liquidized oxygen as fuel as "successful." "There was no hardware damage," he told The Montana Standard. "And the scientific results we got out of it were very valuable." The facility is located southwest of Butte, in the Butte-Silver Bow Tax Increment Financing District.

The primary focus of the testing is to establish design guidelines for use in the development of more efficient hybrid rocket systems. Karabeyoglu's team tried a variety of different internal configurations in the engine along with several new fuel formulations and is in the process of evaluating the results.

The company is working with the Air Force to advance paraffin-based hybrid rocket propulsion technology as an alternative to existing chemical rocket systems. Hybrid rocket motors, which rely on both solid-fuel and liquid oxidizers, have several advantages of either all-solid or all-liquid propellants, said Karabeyoglu.

He noted safety, high performance, easy throttle-ability, affordability and environmental friendliness can make the hybrid rockets a good alternative to more conventional chemical systems Dave Micheletti and Jim Kambich of the Montana Aerospace Development Association said the test was a significant milestone for Montana's aerospace industry.

It didn't come easy, however. It took nearly a decade for the idea to finally come to fruition.

"Every time we got to the next phase," said Micheletti. "It seemed we realized there was just more work ahead of us." He first became aware of the possibility of locating the facility in Butte in 2000, when a jet engine test site in Mojave, Calif., was losing its funding and its future was in doubt. It was slated to be destroyed, shipped to Washington and stored without much thought to possible uses.

"It probably would have just rotted up there," said Micheletti.

So he contacted Kambich and Montana Aerospace Development Association, who came up with a plan to get the hardware placed in Butte.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the Montana Department of Commerce, MSE, Rhodia, MERDI, Spath Engineering and Space Propulsion Group were important partners in securing the site for Butte, said Kambich.

"This is a direct result of what can happen when the public/private sectors work on projects that produce high-end economic activity," he said.

Kambich also noted that he is excited about the economic possibilities of the site.

When the hardware was located in California, Kambich said he was "amazed" at the number of businesses that had sprouted up around it, even though that site lacked electricity, running water, and many of the amenities the Butte location provides.

Micheletti said the Space Propulsion Group has already inquired into opening a Butte office thus summer. Kambich said at least some economic impact has already been felt, as the 12-person team from Stanford spent more than a week in Butte before testing the rockets.

The Space Propulsion Group has scheduled another round of testing in May. It also plans to test a larger 24-inch diameter version in 2010.

Micheletti said he has "customers lined up" to use the facility, including ATK, an aerospace and defense company known for making rocket engines for the space shuttle. That company is considering a multi-million dollar, multi-year project in Butte.

— Reporter Tim Trainor may be reached via e-mail at tim.trainor@lee.net or call 496-5519.

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