(KUTV) - A thruster 'experiment' built by undergraduate students at Utah State University in Logan has come back to Earth from space.
NASA launched a 43-foot-tall rocket into space Sunday which was holding four experiments from four universities, one of them being USU.
The NASA rocket launched from Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia at 6:51 a.m. Sunday.
USU aerospace engineering graduate students Marc Bulcher, Zac Lewis and Rob Stoddard, and aerospace engineering professor Stephen A. Whitmore designed and built the USU experiment.
Their goal was to flight test a new type of thruster developed and patented by Whitmore.
Thrusters are small motors used to orient spacecraft in zero gravity.
The new USU thrusters are built out of the same plastic used to make Legos. They also don't burn traditional rocket fuel.
“The vast majority of liquid rocket fuels used for space propulsion are extremely dangerous and toxic,” said Bulcher. “Hydrazine, for example, powers thrusters that control satellites and small spacecraft. Hydrazine is carcinogenic, expensive to make and presents many safety and environmental challenges.”
The team's thrusters were mounted inside a small test frame inside the rocket.
When the rocket reached the correct altitude, its mid-section fell away, exposing the USU experiment to the vacuum of space.
Whitmore confirmed the test was successful and said each thruster fired five times.
Next, the team will determine if exhaust plumes from the thrusters contaminated a nearby optical sensor. If the thrusters burn clean, the technology could revolutionize the space industry, according to USU's College of Engineering.
Whitmore says this is the first time a rocket like this has been started and re-started in a space environment.
“This is the first time a USA-developed green propellant has been flight tested in space,” Whitmore said. “It’s an exciting time for us because this gives our students unparalleled industry experience, and at the same time we’re developing something that could completely change the small spacecraft industry.”
The other schools with experiments aboard the rocket are from the University of Nebraska, the University of Kentucky and the Florida Institute of Technology.