Environment & Engineering

Actually, it IS rocket science

Published Jul 30, 2019

It's game-changing rocket science that could revolutionise the space industry and put New Zealand firmly at the forefront of it—and it’s happening here at Victoria University of Wellington, with a little early-stage guidance from Wellington UniVentures.

Researchers at the University’s Robinson Research Institute are working on developing a novel hybrid rocket propulsion system that is not only cheaper, ‘greener’ and more reliable than current technology, but could also take spacecraft further into space than ever before. 

“Our research has the potential to change how rockets are launched, how satellites are tested or moved in space, and how far spacecraft can travel,” says Robinson’s resident astrophysicist and aerospace engineer Jakub Glowacki.  

Today’s rocket technology mostly uses liquid fuel propulsion, which provides high performance but requires a complex system of fuel and oxidiser delivery. The other alternative is solid fuel propulsion, which is highly expensive and prone to failure. 

The research team is designing a hybrid rocket engine (HRE) that combines the best features of each chemical propulsion type, with the added advantage of electric propulsion. 

“We’re essentially using magnets to create electric current from a high magnetic field. Combining that electric power with hybrid fuel formulations will enable us to manipulate the combustion process and create an engine with more thrust but less weight—something that has never been done before in rocket design,” says Jakub. 

In the past, magnets were not viewed favourably for aerospace application due to their high mass, and therefore heavy weight.  

“We’re using smaller magnets based on high-temperature superconductive (HTS) wires which are able to generate a high magnetic field with a low mass and volume suitable for space applications,” he explains.  

Jakub says that although NASA hypothesised about the use of hybrid rockets during the 1970s, the materials and technology simply weren’t available at that time to make the idea a reality. 

“The new generation of high-temperature superconductive magnets changes everything; now is the time for us to exploit this niche and lead the application of HTS tech in the space industry,” he says.  

Robinson Research Institute is already world-renowned for its high-temperature superconducting research—space is simply the latest application of the tech, where it could offer huge benefits for space propulsion, thermal protection for spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, and radiation shielding.

“It’s often said that chemical rockets only ‘propel the propellant’ meaning that 95 percent of the available space is taken up by the rocket and the fuel used to propel it,” says Jakub. “Having electric power will reduce the amount of propellant required, thereby increasing the amount of available space for payloads—such as satellites—being sent into space.” 

And with the possibility of asteroids being mined in the future, having room to bring payloads back to earth will also become increasingly important, as will the ability to safely return spacecraft through the extreme temperatures that occur on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. 

“We think there’s potential to use magnetic shielding to create re-usable thermal protection for re-entry vehicles,” says Jakub. “It could be the breakthrough in thermal shield technology that enables rockets to be re-used.” 

Of course heat is not the only thing space travellers need to be protected from—radiation is another problem the technology looks likely to solve. “On earth, we’re surrounded by a magnetic field which protects us from the sun,” says Jakub. “We believe it’s possible for HTS magnets to be used on-board spacecraft to mimic the earth’s magnetic field and protect astronauts from radiation.” 

Wellington UniVentures has been working alongside the team to help apply for patents and funding throughout the research, and to determine future markets and commercialisation pathways.

While Rocket Lab has already attracted worldwide attention—and established New Zealand as a place with unique potential for space launch activities—Jakub says that there are around 70 other space-related entities currently operating in New Zealand, and the industry is burgeoning.   

“In the 2018-2019 period alone, the total estimated revenue of the space economy in New Zealand was $1.75billion.” he says. “Money aside, it’s pretty exciting to think that our research could be instrumental in how the world goes into space in the future.” 

For more information, contact Nicole van der Laak.

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