A pre-pandemic photo of some of the team members - left to right: Abhiraj Majumder (AE '21), Chris Nielsen (Purdue Graduate Student), Connor Latham (AE '20), Vignesh Sella (AE '21), Andrew Larkey (ME '21), Avery Moore (AE '21), and Avinash Rao (AE '21).
Department of Aerospace Engineering, University Of Illinois, Grainger College of Engineering

In a year defined by obstacles, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student rocket team persevered. Working remotely, they successfully designed a hybrid rocket engine that uses paraffin and a novel nitrous oxide-oxygen mixture called Nytrox. The team hopes to launch a rocket with the new engine at the 2021 Intercollegiate Rocketry and Engineering Competition (IREC).

“Hybrid propulsion powers Virgin Galactic’s suborbital tourist spacecraft, and the development of that engine has been challenging. Our students are now experiencing those challenges firsthand and learning how to overcome them,” says team faculty advisor Michael Lembeck.

Last year, the team’s hybrid engines using nitrous oxide suffered several catastrophic failures. The propellant frequently overheated in the New Mexico desert, where the IREC is held. This motivated the team to find an alternative fuel that could remain stable at temperature, and Nytrox surfaced as the solution.

As the students began working on the engine in the spring, excitement to conduct hydrostatic testing of the ground oxidizer tank vessel quickly turned to frustration as there were no safe test locations.

Team leader Vignesh Sella says they were disheartened at first but rallied by creating a safety review, meeting with another student rocket group to examine their options. Eventually, they were invited to conduct their hydrostatic and cold-flow testing at Purdue University’s Zucrow Laboratories, a facility dedicated to testing rocket propulsion.

The team wanted hard test data to document progress but had to switch tactics in March when the campus move to online-only classes curtailed in-person activities.

“As the disruptions caused by COVID-19 required us to work remotely, we pivoted by focusing on documenting the design processes and decisions we made for the engine. This allowed us to complete a paper that wasn’t too far from the original abstract. Our members, some of whom are international, met on Zoom and Discord to work on the paper together virtually, across five time zones,” Sella says.

After engine testing is complete, the next task will be integrating it into the rocket. This will require fitting key flight hardware components within the geometric constraints of a rocket body tube and structurally securing the engine to the vehicle, Sella explains.

In June 2021, the rocket will be transported to Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, for its first launch.

University Of Illinois, Grainger College of Engineering