bluShift founder and CEO Sascha Deri (left) holding a 3D printed model of a cube sat small satellite, Seth Lockman and Benjamin Lemieux, all members of the bluShift team, stand at their test site at Brunswick Landing. (Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK– bluShift Aerospace, a “small team of nerds” operating out of Brunswick Landing recently received a Small Business Innovation Research grant from NASA worth up to $125,000 to help them achieve their ultimate goal of “getting closer to the stars,” as CEO Sascha Deri put it. 

The phase one grant will help the company develop a fully modular hybrid rocket engine, a Modular Adaptable Rocket Engine for Vehicle Launch, or MAREVL, which Deri described as being similar to a Lego in concept. The rocket engine will help them ultimately launch small satellites, or “cube sats” into space.

Modern orbital rockets are made up of two or more stages, communications officer Seth Lockman explained in a press release. Different stages use different engine types for different parts of the ascent. 

With MAREVL though, each stage will have the same engine type, just using more of them at different stages. Using one engine for all stages in parallel will help lower costs, Deri said Friday. 

MAREVL uses a hybrid rocket in which liquid oxidizer combines with bluShift’s special type of organic, bio-derived fuel to reduce the complexity, weight and cost of the engine. 

Hybrid rockets are by no means a new concept, Deri said, but it’s their fuel, which is completely natural and made from ingredients grown on a farm, that’s innovative. 

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The solid fuel, similar to a crayon in texture is technically vegan, and while a person could safely eat it, Deri does not recommend it. 

Aside from being sustainable, it’s also not as dangerous as many other fuel alternatives, allowing them to keep insurance costs low, and therefore keeping the price even lower. 

Ultimately, MAREVL will allow more frequent and more affordable launches, according to the release, and any loss in efficiency will be made up for in overall cost savings, and be negated by bluShift’s carbon-neutral fuel. 

Many rocket companies, Deri said, are trying to create a “Formula 1 car.” bluShift, though, is trying to create the rocket version of a Toyota Corolla, he said: something that works and may have more mass, but is safer and more affordable. 

“We want to innovate, but innovate smartly,” Deri said, “not just innovate for innovation’s sake.” 

All eight on their team are “passionate about space exploration,” Deri said, but they’re also passionate about attracting and growing the aerospace industry in Maine.

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The company was originally started in Massachusetts in 2014, but Deri, who grew up in Maine, moved the company back home, to Brunswick Landing’s incubator space, TechPlace in 2016 after finding Massachusetts to not be overly welcoming for a small aerospace startup. Thanks to help from Maine Technology Institute though, they were able to make the move and hire a test engineer. 

With the NASA grant, Deri will also be able to hire a mechanical engineer from Maine who originally left the state when he couldn’t find work. 

Eventually, Deri hopes to be able to bring in up to 45 jobs for Mainers to help him develop more “cutting edge” space technology. 

“We want to remain a Maine company,” he said, but they need the capital to do it. bluShift, currently self and grant funded, has launched a crowdsourcing campaign on Patreon to help hire one or more of the company’s engineers fulltime. “The more hours we can pay, the sooner we launch our first payload, and the sooner we can grow as a business,” according to the campaign. 

“This is an incredible opportunity to develop hi-tech here in my home state, diversify Maine’s economy, and keep more of our bright young tech people here in Maine in the future,” Deri said.

One day, he hopes to be able to have a launch site in Maine, a sort of “Cape Cutler” in Washington County like Cape Canaveral.  

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Facing due-South, Maine’s coastline is uniquely suited for inexpensive rocket launching without the risk of hitting anything until about the Dominican Republic, at which point a rocket would be either in space or in the ocean, he said. 

bluShift now operates at a more remote location, still in Brunswick Landing, and Deri said that TechPlace’s resources, particularly the new composites layup facility, will be extremely helpful for their work. 

Once the funding is released, and Deri said he hopes that will be in the next few months, the company has six months to complete phase one. If it is successful, they can apply for a phase two grant for up to $750,000. 

Though what they do is literal rocket science, bluShift’s model is simple: “We aim to make space flight cheaper and more accessible for all, and to be a more environmentally friendly system while we do it.” 

On the visible light spectrum, when an object moves away, the light is shifted to the red end of the spectrum as its wavelengths get longer. As an object moves closer, the light moves (or shifts) to the blue end of the spectrum as the wavelengths get shorter. Redshift and blueshift are often used to describe how light shifts as objects in space, like stars, move, Deri said. bluShift is so named because the as the light gets turns blue, the closer you are to the stars, and that is exactly what where they hope to get. 

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