The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG) on Thursday said it has successfully tested a powerful liquid-propellant rocket engine as the first step towards developing a launch vehicle for placing satellites into the Earth’s orbit.
The Ablative Blow-down Liquid Engine (ABLE) was designed by mechanical engineering students in the masters and doctoral programmes at the UKZN.
ASReG is developing designs for a commercial launch vehicle capable of placing satellites weighing up to 200 kg into orbit for communications, environmental monitoring, agriculture, and Earth observation purposes.
The successful operation of ABLE will enable the group to begin work on a flight-weight engine to power the proposed rocket.
ASReG’s Space Propulsion Programme is supported by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), which is fully funding the sounding rocket development research and the liquid propulsion initiative, as well as the students that are involved.
“The DSI is extremely proud to be part of this ground-breaking initiative,” said the Department’s Humbulani Mudau, Chief Director: Space Science and Technology.
“The cutting-edge technology the team has consistently produced to get us to this point has been awe-inspiring.
“The project demonstrates the calibre of young engineers we have in this country – not only in the test we successfully conducted, but also in the exemplary work ethic, dedication and drive the team exhibits.
“Truly, I feel the future of this country and the continent are safe in the hands of such a strong-willed, hard-working team. Keep pushing, team – this partnership is soaring to new heights.”
Mudau said the successful ABLE test campaign took place at the Denel Overberg Test Range in the Western Cape over a three-week period.
Ten mechanical engineering students put the SAFFIRE ABLE rocket engine through its paces on a test stand to measure its performance.
The ABLE combusts liquid oxygen (LOX) and jet A-1 fuel to produce just under two tons of thrust, and is similar in design to engines powering the newest small satellite launch vehicles.
Mudau said for the test campaign, students not only built the engine itself, but designed and qualified a state-of-the-art test facility with propellant storage tanks, an automated engine control system, and a thrust stand to restrain the engine throughout its operation.
During testing, the ABLE produced 18 kilonewtons (about 1,8 tons) of thrust in a series of short and long-duration burns. Although there are bigger commercial engines in operation, ABLE is one of the most powerful student-built liquid rocket engines ever produced.
With this development, UKZN has further strengthened its position as a South African centre of excellence in aerospace propulsion engineering.
In March this year, ASReG broke the African hybrid rocket altitude record when it successfully launched a Phoenix rocket to 18 km. ABLE is a different kind of engine, running on liquid propellants rather than the solid and liquid combination of the Phoenix rocket.
Mastering liquid rocket engine technology places UKZN and ASReG in a strong position to accelerate the development of a commercial launch vehicle.
Mudau said the ultimate goals are to create an African satellite launch capability, support South Africa’s indigenous satellite and space data industries, and boost the country’s fourth industrial revolution (4IR) readiness.
Dr Jean Pitot, the SAFFIRE Engine Programme manager at UKZN, said: “The overwhelming success of our recent ABLE rocket engine test campaign is testament to the profound ability of young South African engineers to find globally competitive solutions to today’s grand engineering challenges.
“The rapid evolution of society’s interaction with space over the past decade has been astonishing, and is set to accelerate as the services offered by burgeoning space-based enterprises become integral to our daily lives,” Dr. Pitot continued.
“The ASReG team is proud of the leading role that UKZN is playing in laying the technical foundations for a sovereign space launch capability that will provide Africa with direct access to the space economy.”