A hybrid rocket engine, powered by sustainable, bio-derived, carbon-neutral fuel, ignites at the bluShift Aerospace test pad at Brunswick Landing in this BDN file photo. Credit: File | BDN

Brunswick-based bluShift Aerospace learned Tuesday that it will receive a grant from NASA for as much as $125,000 to further develop its modular rocket engine that will launch small satellites into space.

The Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — the first secured by bluShift Aerospace — will allow the company to theoretically and physically develop a modular rocket engine it plans to use to launch small satellites — “cube sats” — into space, bluShift Aerospace founder and CEO Sascha Deri said Friday.

Perhaps equally important, the funds will allow Deri to create a full-time position for a Maine-born engineer born who previously had to move away to find the high-tech employment he sought.

“This is part of the dream,” Deri said. “He grew up in [midcoast Maine], went to the University of Maine — he did his senior project on hybrid rockets — and he had to go to Massachusetts to get a job. This will bring him back. This is a perfect example of what we’ve been trying to say the whole time: ‘Let’s get the high-tech kids to stay in Maine.’”

The company, which is headquartered at Brunswick Landing on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, was founded in 2014 by Deri, a native of Orland who attended the University of Southern Maine. At the time, Deri lived and worked in Massachusetts, where he also founded a successful solar energy company. He relocated bluShift Aerospace to the Tech Place incubator at Brunswick Landing in 2016, and then to a remote facility elsewhere on the former Navy base.

Should the first phase of the grant be successful, bluShift Aerospace will be eligible to apply for the second phase, which could bring as much as $750,000 from NASA, according to Deri.

Deri described the engine, or MARVEL (Modular Adaptable Rocket Engine for Vehicle Launch) as “Lego-like” in its ability to have components added or removed for various stages of the rockets.

“[It’s] sort of a building block rocket engine we can snap together for any stage of the rocket,” he said. “It becomes quite a bit less expensive to manufacture and produce the rocket because we’re creating one engine we can put in multiple times. Plus, we’re using hybrid rocket technology, which is safer and lower cost than solid [and liquid] fuel rockets.”

In a hybrid rocket, liquid oxidizer combines with a solid fuel to reduce complexity, weight and cost of the engine.

The proprietary fuel — “the secret sauce,” Deri said — is made of materials found on any farm, is not toxic and not explosive, carbon-neutral and performs better than petroleum-based fuel.

He and his equity partners are confident they’re at the forefront of a new market predicted by one study to grow to $62 billion by 2030, he said in 2016.

Deri said he hopes bluShift Aerospace will create more than 40 aerospace jobs in Maine in the next five years. The NASA grant, he said, “validates what we’ve been working for five years on. It gives us credibility as we seek to raise more funds as we seek to launch the program.”

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