UKZN Successfully Tests Liquid Propellant Rocket Engine

The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG) has successfully tested a liquid propellant rocket engine. This test is the first towards developing a launch vehicle for putting satellites into Earth orbit. Masters and doctoral mechanical engineering students at UKZN designed the Ablative Blow-down Liquid Engine (ABLE).

ASReG is developing designs for a commercial launch vehicle capable of placing satellites weighing up to 200 kg into orbit. These include communications, environmental monitoring, agriculture and Earth observation satellites. Thus, ABLE’s successful operation enables the group to work on a flight-weight engine to power the proposed rocket.

ASReG’s Space Propulsion Programme receives support from the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). Furthermore, the Department is fully funding the sounding rocket development research, the liquid propulsion initiative, and the related students.

The successful ABLE test campaign occurred at the Denel Overberg Test Range in the Western Cape over a three-week period. Ten 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. This is similar in design to engines powering the newest small satellite launch vehicles. Furthermore, developing a compact rocket engine that can be clustered to power the first and second stages of a commercial small-satellite launch vehicle, is SAFFIRE immediate aim.

In addition, students built the engine itself and 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. Furthermore, the ABLE produced 18 kilonewtons (about 1.8 tons) of thrust in a series of short and long-duration burns during testing.

“With this development, UKZN has further strengthened its position as a South African centre of excellence in aerospace propulsion engineering. In March, ASReG broke the African hybrid rocket altitude record. 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,” the UKZN said.

“Mastering liquid rocket engine technology places UKZN and ASReG in a strong position to accelerate the development of a commercial launch vehicle. 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.”

UKZN is currently the only South African university pursuing an applied rocket propulsion programme. The university is consequently producing graduates with skills in advanced manufacturing, aerospace systems design, and computational analysis. The programme started in 2010, and several students involved in it are now working in key technical positions in institutions. These include Armscor, Milkor and Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM).