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Student-built rocket at USC aims for higher altitude this winter

Built with Japanese technology, it will be the first from students to use two engines on one flight vehicle

Student rocket project: USC Liquid Propulsion Lab tests rocket engine
A test fire took place in December 2017. (Photo/Courtesy of Liquid Propulsion Lab)

They built and tested USC’s first 3-D printed rocket engine this spring. Now USC Viterbi School of Engineering students plan to launch a rocket in December in collaboration with the Kyushu Institute of Technology (Kyutech) in Japan.

The USC Liquid Propulsion Lab’s 1-ton rocket aims to reach an altitude of about 20,000 feet, half the height at which commercial planes fly. The students hope their rockets will eventually reach space.

“It will be one of the most powerful student-built engines in the world, and we will be the first student team that will use two engines on one flight vehicle,” said Jan Fessl, Liquid Propulsion Lab co-lead engineer and master’s student in USC Viterbi’s Department of Astronautical Engineering.

Student rocket project spans the Pacific

USC’s lab is in charge of the propulsion system, including the rocket engine, the fuel-feed systems and associated electronics. Students from Kyutech’s Space Systems Laboratory are building the flight vehicle, which includes the aerodynamic shell, the parachute recovery system and most of the electronics system.

The Japanese space agency and several Japanese companies supplied fuel tanks and reaction control systems, which stabilize and position the rocket. The Liquid Propulsion Lab receives funding for the student rocket project from USC and external sponsors interested in supporting liquid rocketry.

To integrate their components, USC student and lab member Peter Bennion is spending the semester in Japan at Kyutech. A master’s student in astronautical engineering, Bennion continues his USC studies remotely in Japan through the online DEN@Viterbi program.

Bennion is designing the interface between the USC rocket and Kyutech’s flight electronics. The Liquid Propulsion Lab will have its own self-contained control system, he said, “but once it gets strapped to Kyutech’s airframe, we will need a way to talk to it from the ground.”

Kyutech’s vehicle boasts an onboard network that lets components such as the data recorder and flight computer talk to each other. Bennion is incorporating the computer that controls their engine into that network.

Then there’s the flight hardware. Bennion figures out where cables will go and helps determine flight procedures and emergency safety equipment.

Liquid Propulsion Lab Test

Liquid Propulsion Lab members pose with their engine before the successful test fire in December 2017. (Photo/Rashid Shahid)

Liquid propulsion systems used in the industry

Formed three years ago as an offshoot of the USC Rocket Propulsion Lab, the Liquid Propulsion Lab has since grown to include 35 members. The program gives students an opportunity to explore liquid propulsion technologies commonly used by companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, which are different from the solid propellants used by the Rocket Propulsion Lab.

“Liquid propulsion systems are far more complex and their development requires knowledge of fluid dynamics and thermodynamics,” Fessl said. “Nowadays, the industry uses mainly liquid propulsion systems for their reliability, reusability and efficiency.”

While their work focuses on advanced rocketry research, the team is modeled to reflect an industry environment. That creates a real-world experience to members, who are mostly graduate students.

“We’re providing an operational engine to a customer,” Bennion said. “We don’t have complete control over the entire system, so our product needs to meet the requirements Kyutech specifies.”

The students are advised by David Barnhart, research professor in astronautics and director of the Space Engineering Research Center.

“It’s outstanding to see engineering theory reduced to practice before students graduate at USC,” Barnhart said. “They are working on systems that are truly enabling second-generation applications in space today.”

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Student-built rocket at USC aims for higher altitude this winter

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