UCLA Rocket Project Aims for the Stratosphere

Apr 10, 2018

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

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The Odyssey 1 has already soared more than 12,000 feet above the earth, higher than any other student-built, liquid-fueled rocket.

On March 10, in a remote section of the Mojave Desert, more than two hours from campus, students erupted in cheers of U-C-L-A! Fight! Fight! Fight! There was no marching band or football game, but the student-built Odyssey 1 rocket had just completed its first test launch, reaching 12,550 feet in altitude and returning to solid ground partially intact.

“The Odyssey has been in development for almost a year, so this was really exciting,” said Anil Nair, a senior aerospace engineering major and current president of the Rocket Project at UCLA. “During a liquid-fueled rocket launch, a thousand things can go wrong and you need all of them to go right.”

The Rocket Project has been in existence for more than 10 years, but this year, is expanding and reaching new heights—literally. Its membership has grown from around 30 students a year to more than 100, and the team is working on multiple types of rockets for the first time. In May, they’ll be entering the Odyssey 1 in the first ever FAR-MARS competition, in which students aim to have liquid-fueled rockets hit a set altitude.

“There’s been a surge of enthusiasm about the aerospace industry as a whole the past few years, which is reflected in student enrollment in our aerospace engineering major,” said Mitchell Spearrin, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, and the club’s lead faculty advisor.” At UCLA, we are aiming to create an elite training ground for rocket engineers, both by expanding our student club activities and also our curriculum with project-based courses that allow students to practice being engineers.”

The Rocket Project, though, includes not only aerospace engineering majors, but students with strengths in chemistry, physics, computer science, and other areas of engineering.

Typically, student rocket groups focus on building solid propellant rockets, which rely on a pre-mixed solid fuel and oxidizer. These rockets are the simplest, and can be the easiest to build and launch, said Spearrin, who notes these propellants are used in fireworks and for model rocketry. One step up are hybrid rockets, which typically use a solid fuel but a liquid or gas oxidizer, requiring some valves, tanks, and plumbing that add complexity.

In the past, the Rocket Project at UCLA has entered solid and hybrid rockets in the annual Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), held each June in New Mexico. The competition not only awards cash prizes to groups whose rockets come closest to different target altitudes, but offers valuable exposure to corporate recruiters for those looking to break into aerospace engineering as a career path.

This year, with expanded support from the engineering school, and the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, the club has added outreach efforts to inspire local students, and has undertaken a more complex project: designing a building a fully liquid rocket.

“Liquid-fueled rockets are the predominant type used by industry for space launch due to their high performance, but are typically not done by student groups,” said Spearrin. “To build this kind of rocket, our students have had to learn a lot of new things and really elevate their engineering skills.”

A fully liquid rocket uses both a liquid fuel and a liquid oxidizer, both of which must be fed in sync to the rocket’s engine, mixed with a precisely-designed injector, and ignited at an appropriate mixture ratio for a perfect fire and launch. Over the course of the last year, the Rocket Project has tested multiple designs for their liquid rocket engine, which was fabricated by the students themselves in the on-campus machine shop. Several design elements had to be abandoned, but each failure provided a learning experience. Before their full test launch, they had made 12 trips to their Mojave launch site, each time testing slightly different designs of their propulsion system with different liquid propellant combinations.

Their March 10 test launch reached higher than 12,500 feet in altitude. While other amateur groups have launched to higher altitudes, the team believes this rocket launch achieved a record altitude for a vehicle and liquid-fueled rocket engine manufactured entirely by students.”

With one test launch under their belt, Nair and his fellow Rocket Project members still have more work to do. The FAR-MARS Prize of $50,000 will go to the student group with a liquid rocket that comes nearest to 45,000 feet, and the group is already making improvements they hope will get them close.

“Typically the options are to make your propulsion system higher performing or to make everything else lighter,” Nair said. “So we’re pursuing both those avenues between now and May.”

The FAR-MARS competition will be held in the Mojave Desert on May 5th, the date that Alan Shephard became the first American in Space in 1961. The competition currently has five schools enrolled. Whether the UCLA team wins or not, they’re already happy with the work they’ve done. And the Rocket Project will also be entering IREC in June, as usual.

“We’re literally reaching for the stars and making history here,” Nair said. “Rockets, in general, inspire people to pursue STEM and there’s this excitement about the spectacle of seeing a rocket go off. That and the hands-on aspect of seeing how these theories we learn in class apply is really what’s so exciting for us.”

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