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Fri, Jul 12, 2019

Portland State University Places 3rd In International Space Challenge

Plans To Launch A Liquid-Fueled Rocket To The Edge Of Space In 2021

If all goes according to plan, by December 2021 students from Portland State University will be the first group to launch a liquid-fueled rocket that makes it to the edge of space.

The team, made up of members of PSU’s Aerospace Society, is already on a path to victory. They competed at a recent Base 11 Space Challenge event in California against schools including University of California, Los Angeles, University of British Columbia and Arizona State University, and took home third place — and $10,000 — for their preliminary rocket design. The team also left with an additional $5,000 accompanying the Dassault Systemes Early Adopter Award for their use of Dassault’s 3DExperience software.

The Base 11 Space Challenge is an international competition for university students who are designing and — in theory — launching a liquid-fueled rocket into space. PSU Team Captain Risto Rushford said the challenge was an opportunity to further the work they were already doing — because the competition allowed them to build on the designs and technology that was in the works.

Rushford, who is recent PSU School of Business graduate, said several other teams are also building on existing projects for the competition. Having a slight head start means PSU’s team is closer to testing multiple elements of the rocket. This summer, they’re working toward what’s called a hot fire test. Essentially, the rocket is mounted on a stand to test the thrusters without actually launching toward space.

But working on an urban campus poses some logistical challenges to orchestrating the test. Rushford said the problem can be fixed with a road trip to central Oregon. Although they’re hoping to find a space closer to home for the hot fire test.

The liquid-fueled rocket utilizes a fuel-oxidizer mixture to propel into the exosphere, the last layer of the atmosphere before space. “In our case, rubbing alcohol and liquid oxygen are part of our propellant mix,” Rushford said.

The fuel is stored in separate tanks and mixed together using a control mechanism in the engine. “The liquid-fueled engine’s advantage over a solid rocket motor is you’re not just directing the explosion,” he said. “You can actually change the rate of speed — like stepping on the accelerator in a car or stepping on the brakes to slow down.”

The liquid-fueled engine works more efficiently and with less weight. Because of its design utilizing this type of engine, PSU’s Launch Vehicle 4 would be the smallest liquid-fueled rocket ever to reach the edge of space if successful. “We have a large interdisciplinary team of PSU students working on this,” Rushford said.

The team is made up of about 40 students with backgrounds including applied math, public health, physics and mechanical engineering. Students with an applied math background run simulations, public health students oversee safety protocols, those with engineering and physics training work on building the actual rocket and others, like Rushford, gain experience in systems engineering. “We’ve made it so there’s a place for everyone,” he said. “They can come in and  apply the skillset they’re learning at PSU to aerospace and get the benefit of an aerospace education without the degree.”

Rushford, for example, just graduated with a bachelor’s in supply chain management and he will return in the fall to earn his master’s in systems engineering. “I personally feel really strongly that I would like to have a career in the space launch industry,” he said. “Without project experience, especially at a school like Portland State that doesn’t have a formal aerospace program, it’s nearly impossible to get into that industry.”

Teresa Nguyen, a Portland Community College mechanical engineering student who plans to transfer to PSU, joined the team last year and has taken on a role in systems engineering that’s included writing a grant proposal and assisting with the implementation of the project management system. “It's not as impossible seeming as you might think at first when you get started,” Nguyen said. “I've been involved for almost a year now, and while it still feels like I have so much more to learn (which I do) I have come a very long way from knowing absolute zero.”

They agreed that the group is specifically designed to onboard students who have little or no training in designing a rocket. “Just show up to meetings and get ready to dive in,” they added.

Building a rocket isn’t cheap. Funding may be the largest hurdle PSU’s team has to overcome. “While we’re really good at engineering our own solutions so we can do things cheaply, it slows us down,” Rushford said. “If we get slowed down too much because we just can’t afford the right parts that could mean losing the competition.”

So far, they’ve already spent about $100,000. Rushford estimates they need about $300,000 more to cross the proverbial finish line. “We believe we can do this,” he said.

The first step is to up their fundraising efforts. The team will host an aerospace exposition September 28 to fundraise via ticket sales, but the event will serve another important function. Rushford said they hope to raise awareness about the aerospace industry in Portland and create an opportunity to reach out to the professional community. “We know there are a lot of companies in the area that are involved in aerospace, so we want to get the word out to them there is actual aerospace development going on in Oregon,” he said.

(Images courtesy of Portland State Aerospace Society provided with PSU news release)

FMI: www.pdx.edu


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