Image Credit: University of Canterbury

Image Credit: University of Canterbury

University of Canterbury to improve rocket-launching technology

The potential to make launching a rocket easier, faster and cheaper has been made possible because of the new research being done by the University of Canterbury (UC), New Zealand. The research will also have wide-ranging benefits for other technology.

According to the University’s researchers, a new flight strategy has the potential to launch rockets into orbit in a cheaper and more efficient manner, which will also improve everyday technology like mobile phones and Global Positioning System (GPS).

According to the report made by the University, a major challenge faced by launching rockets is fuel movement within the tanks that affect the trajectory of rockets through resonance.

Baffles, the heavy mechanical rings inside fuel tanks, are the favoured solution to dampen the slosh of fuel and its effects on flight trajectory.

Mr Philipp Sueltrop, a PhD student from the University’s College of Engineering, is working to prevent the effects of fuel slosh in rockets by using mathematical algorithms.

An Electrical and Computer Engineering student, Mr Sueltrop is predicting and adjusting the flight movement before fuel slosh becomes a problem. He explained that it is about performing the right movement at the right time.

He has observed slosh and rocket motion behaviours using a vertical wind tunnel on campus and real-life launches conducted in partnership with Rocket Lab.

After collecting enough data to accurately predict fuel slosh under different movements, Mr Sueltrop will install the algorithm ‘on board’ the flight control computer.

During that stage, real-life launches will be used to gather data and record how the algorithm could influence the flight strategy and compare these findings to what was observed during testing in the wind tunnel to prove the effectiveness of the algorithm.

If successful, this could either reduce or completely remove the need for baffles in fuel tanks. He recommended slowly introducing the algorithm into real flight to reduce risk.

He explained that making the move into real flight means fully converting the algorithm into a flight version that takes into account elements, including acceleration, that are not present in the wind tunnel. The algorithm is very flexible and easily scalable.

The foundation for the algorithm was originally designed for the medical field by his supervisor, Dr Chris Hann, a UC Engineering academic.

Dr Hann discussed that the underlying mathematics was first developed for glucose control and cardiovascular management in the Christchurch Intensive Care Unit.

From there, it was transferred to the field of rocketry. The analogy is that insulin is used to control glucose where in a rocket you have canards which control the direction of the rocket.

Mr Sueltrop is enthusiastic about the future prospects of the algorithm. He added that it is a long-term solution to make it easier, faster and cheaper to launch a rocket as well as making technology that relies on this more accessible to everyday users.

Dr Hann added that the research has far reaching applications. He described Philipp’s research as having direct application to providing better control of liquid fuel orbital rockets including removing the need for heavy baffles and allowing launches in a greater range of weather conditions.

It also has application for ship-to-ship docking in the ocean and potentially developing better control systems that handle sea-ice interactions for ships in the polar regions.

Mr Philipp Sueltrop won the UC Thesis in Three 2017 and represented the University at the Asia-Pacific competition in Brisbane, Australia, in late 2017, where he placed in the top ten.

His presentation made a comparison of his research into the effects of rocket fuel movement with walking with a cup of coffee.

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