19 November 2004

The University of Queensland’s fascination with rocket science continues with students testing and launching three different types of supersonic propulsion systems in the last month.

From a Woomera launch pad in South Australia to a Brookfield workshop, students have fired up a ramrocket, Pulse Detonation Engine (PDE) and hybrid rocket.

All three projects were final year thesis projects for mechanical and space engineering students under the supervision of Professor Richard Morgan from UQ’s Centre for Hypersonics.

Two supersonic air-breathing engines, the ramrocket and PDE, were launched at Woomera by piggyback off obsolete military rockets.

These payloads were part of ASRI’s (Australian Space Research Institutes) Small Sounding Rocket Project in early October.

Project spokesman Matthew McGilvray said the 1.5 metre ramrocket, dubbed the TF1000, was clocked at 590 metres per second (Mach 1.7) during its two-second flight.

Mr McGilvray said the ramrocket ran on solid fuel – a mix of rubber, aluminium and ammonium perchlorate, instead of liquid or gas propellants such as hydrogen or kerosene.

“It’s pretty significant that they got the thing to work, even if it wasn’t at optimal performance,” Mr McGilvray said.

“This project was a invaluable learning experience for the undergraduates in practical space engineering.”

He said the PDE was powered by fast, pulsing detonations of hydrogen, a progression of buzz bombs developed by the Germans in WWII.

An electronics problem a day before the launch caused the engine to burn continuously but not “pulse” as intended.

“Unlike the ramrocket, the supersonic PDE is a new air-breathing engine technology which ground testing, let alone flight testing, is still in its infancy.

“It was an ambitious goal [to flight test a PDE] for a group undergraduates to take on, and commendable to come close to achieving it.”

The UQ team is Andrew Dann (Kenmore), Fabian Zander (Indooroopilly), Josh Mitchell (Nundah), Ben Tett (Indooroopilly), James Turner (Kenmore), Chris Glenn (Yeerongpilly), Matt Hilton (Chapel Hill), Dwight van Diem (Auchenflower) and help from Mr McGilvray, a post-graduate hypersonics student.

At Brookfield, another group of UQ students tested their own hybrid rocket system similar to the ones proposed in jetting tourists into space with airliner Virgin Galactic.
Group spokesman Chris Horwill said the hybrid rocket, which runs on plastic and drag-car fuel, was fired horizontally but bolted to a cement floor to keep it still so the group could collect data.

Hybrid rockets were used in missiles in the 1950s but had been largely abandoned until the successful test flight of Spaceship 1 in June this year.

Mr Horwill said the test flight generated five times the thrust of last year’s model because of an improved fuel chamber and fuel injection system.

This group consisted of Mr Horwill (Brookfield), Cliff Besley (Indooroopilly) and Dean Pannell (Chapel Hill).

Mr Horwill said their results since building UQ’s first hybrid engine last year, were impressive considering it was a student-driven project.

He said hybrid rockets were fashionable in rocketry because they were safe and cheap and could work on varying fuel mixes, with some running on cardboard.

Media: Woomera launch– Mr McGilvray on (phone: 0402 445 048, 07 3365 4069, email: m.mcgilvray@uq.edu.au), Brookfield launch– Mr Horwill (phone: 0411 050 998), Mr Besley (phone: 0400 279 376), or Miguel Holland at UQ Communications on (phone: 3365 2619, email: m.holland@uq.edu.au)