Created on Thursday, 23 November 2017 17:17
Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 December 2017 23:31
Published on Thursday, 23 November 2017 17:17
Above: The first full-scale test fire of SPG's Mars Ascent Vehicle rocket motor. Right: Dr. Brian Evans (Images Courtesy of the Space Propulsion Group)by Jim Larson
Butte has long known how to bring rocks from the earth; now Butte joins the effort to take them from the sky.
A local aerospace firm is on track to design and build the propulsion component of a space vehicle that will land on Mars and then take off again, and when the rocket rises into the thin Martian atmosphere, it will carry a payload of samples gathered from the red planet’s crust.
“It’s something that is a complete Butte product that could be sitting on the surface of Mars in a few years,” Dr. Brian Evans said.
NASA calls the rocket the Mars Ascent Vehicle or MAV, and it is a key part of NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission.
Evans is the Chief Engineer for the company, the Space Propulsion Group, and under his guidance, SPG has developed a hybrid rocket fuel that may be critical to the success of the mission.
The MAV will bring rocks from Mars to a “mother ship” waiting in orbit around the red planet. Those samples will be brought back to earth for study, Evans said.
The rovers that currently study the Martian surface analyze rocks, but they can’t perform the extensive tests that can be done on earth, Evans said.
Waiting for the samples to be gathered will require that the MAV be on the planet’s surface for up to two years, Evans said, and that is where the fuel’s role becomes crucial.
Neither liquid nor solid rocket fuel can withstand the extreme temperatures experienced on the surface of Mars, but SPG has developed a fuel that can, and they have demonstrated that to NASA. It is paraffin based fuel that uses mixed oxides of nitrogen as an oxidizer, Dr. Evans said. He noted that for combustion to occur, heat, fuel and an oxidizer are needed. (Oxygen is the oxidizer involved in most fires on the earth.)
SPG came out of Stanford University in 1999 and was previously based in Silicon Valley, Dr. Evans said.
The company began testing in Butte-Silver Bow in 2009 to take advantage of lower costs and an accommodating business and political climate. Dr. Evans joined the company in 2010, “right out of school,” he noted.
In 2012 SPG finished up an Air Force contract, and with little else on the horizon, the ten-person company dropped to three employees. Shortly after that, two of them left, leaving just Evans.
During that time Evans worked on the creation of a new PhD Program for Stanford, and it was in a lab there that a call came from NASA, he recalled.
A phone rang in the back of the lab, Evans said, a phone that he had never heard ring before and that he never heard ring after. On the line was a former student and friend and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory project manager. She knew about Evan’s work with paraffin-based fuels and had done related work when acquiring her own PhD, Evans remembered.
“So they had this situation,” Evans said. NASA wanted to bring rocks back for study, but the fuels available to them couldn’t withstand a prolonged stay on Mars. “Their problem was that their current propulsion systems, solid rockets and liquid rockets, wouldn’t work for their planned mission. They’ve been trying to do this for 25 years, but the propellants have never worked,” Evans said.
Enter SPG. Evans noted that the group’s style of hybrid rockets, “don’t suffer that issue. They can survive in that environment.”story continues below
During testing, Dr. Evans and his team demonstrated to NASA that SPG’s version of paraffin rocket fuel could withstand the temperatures that would be faced on the Martian surface, and the company currently is working to show that their fuel and vehicle can sustain a burn long enough to meet the Mars mission requirements, and those tests are on track to be successful, Evans noted.
Current testing is scheduled to conclude at the end of December, according to David Micheletti, SPG’s Vice President of Business Development and Program Management.
“The next phase, according to what we’re being told, would to be to build a vehicle, an actual launch vehicle, that would utilize this ten-inch motor that we’re currently testing, and we got some feedback recently that NASA’s seriously considering having us do that next year,” Micheletti said.
The company conducts tests at the Butte AeroTec Facility, a testing area commissioned by the Montana Aerospace Development Association (MADA), Micheletti said.
The facility is public-private partnership, notes Micheletti. (Story continued below)
An artist's conception of the Mars Sample Return Mission (Image courtesy of NASA)
“We met with the folks from SPG in about 2009,” Micheletti said. (At that time Micheletti had not yet joined SPG. He was the Vice President of Aerospace Programs at MSE in Butte, and he was the President of MADA, a volunteer organization. He joined SPG in 2017, and he is currently Chairman of the Board of MADA.)
“From the very beginning this has been a four-way partnership that includes my organization, which is the Montana Aerospace Development Association or MADA, SPG of course, the City of Butte-Silver Bow and Solvay Corporation. Those were the founding partners of the facility out there, and those four entities continue to be the primary partners," Micheletti said.
When testing began in Butte-Silver Bow in March of 2009, SPG did all of its fabrication and engineering in Silicon Valley, Micheletti noted.
In 2016, when a new test cell was built at Butte AeroTec, and a new round of tests began on a three-inch test motor, “Brian moved from down in the bay area up here. When Brian moved here, that meant essentially that the company moved up here, because he was the company,” Micheletti observed.
But Evans couldn’t run the tests alone, Micheletti said, and so three more employees were added.
Then, on the first of September, SPG received a new contract from the Air Force, a continuation of the work that ended in 2012. More staff was added, and the company is “currently at nine employees,” Micheletti said. Those workers include engineers, technicians and an administrative employee, he said.
If SPG does indeed get the go ahead to build the MAV, and that seems likely, the number of employees will probably double, Micheletti observed.
“We’re optimistic that that level of activity and growth of the company will continue, and Jim Kambich is hoping that we’ll occupy even more of these offices,” Micheltti said.
Kambich is the Chief Executive Officer of MERDI , the non-profit that owns the Thornton Enterprise and Technology Center at the corner of Wyoming and Broadway in Butte. SPG occupies the west wing of the third floor in the Thornton.
Kambich accompanied Micheletti in 2004 to the Mojave Desert to look at testing equipment owned by DARPA.
There, near the town of Mojave, lies what is now called the Mojave Air and Space Port. It is the home of a number of aerospace companies. From there, four years later, with funding procured from the US Dept. of Commerce, ten semi-loads of equipment were brought to Butte-Silver Bow’s TIFID. The equipment was assembled and the Butte AeroTec test facility was born, Kambich said.
SPG brought their own equipment to the Butte site as well, and they ran their first test in February 2009, Kambich said. “It’s become a lower cost test facility than you would have in California,” he noted.
Testing at the Butte facility has not only brought SPG to the brink of participating in a Mars mission, but it has also given the group something that many R & D companies don’t have, and that is a viable product that can be sold, Dr. Evans noted during an interview in Butte’s Science Mine education center.
And in addition to their work for NASA, SPG has recently been awarded another Air Force contract, a continuation of the work they were doing previously for America’s air arm. With both the civilian and military work, it is possible that the company that had been reduced to a lone PhD, will have 20 employees in the near future.