What is Stardust 1.0, the first rocket to run on biofuel?

On January 31, Stardust 1.0 was launched from Loring Commerce Centre in Maine, US, a former military base, becoming the first commercial space launch powered by biofuel, which is non-toxic for the environment as opposed to traditionally used rocket fuels.

Sunday’s launch marks another historic first for Maine since Stardust 1.0 has become the first commercial rocket launch for the state located in northeastern US.

So, what is Stardust 1.0?

Stardust 1.0 is a launch vehicle suited for student and budget payloads. The rocket is 20 feet tall and has a mass of roughly 250 kg. The rocket can carry a maximum payload mass of 8 kg and during its first launch carried three payloads. According to a report in Politico, the payloads included a cubesat prototype built by highschool students, a metal alloy designed to lessen vibrations, which is developed by Kellogg’s Research Labs and a cubesat from software company Rocket Insights.

The rocket is manufactured by bluShift, an aerospace company based in Maine that is developing rockets that are powered by bio-derived fuels. Stardust 1.0 is being developed by the company since 2014 when the company was founded by its CEO Sascha Deri.

These rockets will help to launch small satellites called cubesats into space in a way that is relatively cheaper than using traditional rocket fuel and is less toxic for the environment. Other rockets being developed by the company include Stardust Gen. 2, Starless Rouge and Red Dwarf, which is a low-Earth orbit (LEO) vehicle and is designed to fly a maximum payload of 30 kg.

There are other companies working towards making access to space easier. One of them is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s space company called Blue Origin. Last year in October, the company tested a rocket system called New Shephard. The rocket system is meant to take tourists to space eventually and offers flights to space over 100 km above Earth and accommodation for payloads. Such efforts are a part of a growing number of commercial space companies that are working to provide easier and cheaper access to space to laypeople and also to make access to space cost-effective for purposes of academic research, corporate technology development and entrepreneurial ventures among others.

Significantly, the accommodation of mini payloads provides easier access to space to not only experienced researchers but also to students who are part of educational institutions and are working to develop their own space programs “for less than the price of new football uniforms” as Blue Origin has put it.

Another company founded by British entrepreneur Richard Branson called Virgin Galactic signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in June 2020 to encourage commercial participation in orbital human spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS) and help in the development of a Low Earth Orbit economy.

What is biofuel?

What the biofuel used for Sunday’s launch is made up of is not yet clear, but as per media reports it can be sourced from farms around the world. Deri told Politico that the biofuel is a blend of substances that can be had from any farm across the US and that it is nontoxic. “My two young daughters could eat the fuel and no harm would come to them with the exception of constipation maybe,” the report quoted Deri as saying.

But broadly, biofuels are obtained from biomass, which can be converted directly into liquid fuels that can be used as transportation fuels. According to the US government’s office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the two most common kinds of biofuels in use today are ethanol and biodiesel and they both represent the first generation of biofuel technology. Ethanol, for instance, is renewable and made from different kinds of plant materials. Biodiesel on the other hand is produced by combining alcohol with new and used vegetable oils, animal fats or recycled cooking grease.