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UBC Rocket Engineering Series: Hot Fires and Major Milestones

UBC Rocket

In our collective search for bright spots during this global crisis, the commitment of the scientific community stands out. We’re proud to highlight their work.

We recently shared details of our involvement with the UBC Rocket Engineering Design Team, their design program, and why they chose Haskel as their gas booster supplier. In a check-in on their most recent accomplishments, the team was very excited about the successful hot fire testing they have completed. This is a major milestone for any rocket team, but especially for UBC since they were the first Canadian student team to do so.

Though the team is currently working remotely due to COVID-19 closures, we spoke with the team’s propulsion testing lead, Griffin Peirce, to learn more about the hot fire accomplishments and the goals they are pursuing even through remote work.

How did you get involved with the UBC Rocket program in the first place?

Most members join through our annual recruitment as it is available to anyone who attends the University. I came into the program differently than most who join; the captains of the team bumped into me in passing and asked if I could help rebuild a lathe for them. During the couple of months I was helping the team, I grew close to a lot of amazing people in the program. Over time, my responsibilities continued to grow, and I began working in the propulsion testing group. This eventually led me to my current position of heading up our hot fire operations where I oversee the development of equipment, such as testing rigs and software, to evaluate the team’s prototypes. It is an honor to be a part of UBC Rocket and to work with brilliant colleagues from all different backgrounds and majors of study. Our team has done some amazing things in the short time that our program has existed. Since forming three years ago, we have become a leader among universities that have 10+ years of experience.

Your team has a goal of eventually sending a rocket into space (300,000 feet). What are the team’s immediate goals for 2020 that will prepare you for the ultimate launch?

To send our rocket into space, our propulsion team is striving to develop a reliable propulsion system and have a large portion of the rocket built. Designing the propulsion system takes a lot of time and even a small oversight can lead to our hardware being destroyed during a test, so planning plays a crucial role while running tests. These goals are an interesting challenge because while there is a lot of literature on the function of rocket engines, the constraints of equipment, budget, and time mean that the real challenge is designing an engine that is within our means to manufacture. This means that we focus heavily on evaluating different manufacturing techniques to build the simplest engine design that meets our performance specifications. Testing early, make changes quickly, and adjusting plans are all key to minimizing risks in the project.

Can you tell us more about the hot fire testing successes and what it means for future launches?

For each model we build and test, we characterize the performance based on the engine’s pressure, mass flow rates, thrust, and temperature, to name a few of the key parameters. There are several precursor tests we run on hardware before it reaches the hot fire stage, so when we conduct a hot fire, the hardware we are evaluating is the culmination of significant manufacturing and testing effort. The hot fire is an important test on the propulsion system that ensures each part of the engine is working properly.

The type of performance we look for is similar to how one might grade a car engine. For example, we want an engine that uses our fuel and oxidizer efficiently so that we are not carrying extra propellants and adding to the rocket’s mass, we want an engine the provides sufficient thrust to safely launch our rocket, and we want to ensure that it will not overheat and fail while it operates. These are just a few of the main considerations and naturally, these performance characteristics have trade-offs that influence the design, and as I have mentioned manufacturing a system to achieve this is difficult. The engines we are developing are built to be simple, robust, and reliable, to loop back on the car analogy, you can think of our engine as being on the tractor end of the spectrum whereas the engines you see being used for commercial space flight are like sports cars by comparison.

Our test stand is essentially a mobile structure about the size of an SUV that simulates the propellant feed system on a rocket. It provides a reliable interface onto which we can attach and test an engine. We have upwards of 50 different sensors to monitor system pressures, temperatures, and thrust which help us confirm that the engine is operating as predicted.

We are currently in the early phases of single-engine testing. When planning for a day of testing, a week is spent making sure all systems are prepared for test day. A full day’s worth of operation is required to conduct our hot fire tests with the test only lasting a couple of seconds. Once the test is complete, it takes the team a little less than an hour to reset to run another test. As we continue testing and getting more efficient, we can reduce the cycle time on engine testing and also move to longer tests as we become more confident in the hardware.

hotfire 2

Although these tests only last a few seconds, they are pretty intense. There is an incredible amount of logistics that must be in place and resources that have to be set before testing. We run through a full checklist of all requirements multiple times before testing. Hot fire testing is a bit nerve-wracking because it can all be planned to the smallest detail and then it can blow up in a second. 

Why is Haskel’s gas booster necessary in the pressurization of propellant tanks?

Our rocket is a pressured-fed design, which means all propellants are injected into the engine using pressurized gas. In order for our rocket to reach the desired apogee, we need a pressure source on the rocket operating at a couple of thousand psi which we regulate down to a lower pressure that can continuously support our propellant flow rates for about 40-60 seconds. Haskel’s gas booster is a key part of our pre-flight preparations for filling our high-pressure reservoir to provide a sustained flow rate for the duration of the flight.

If you won, what would the UBC Rocket Team do with The Base 11 Space Challenge prize money?

Before the competition even begins, each team is actually required to share how they would use the $1 million grand prize. Our team would like the money to be allocated in two separate ways:

  1. Supporting UBC’s Applied Science outreach programs: We plan to allocate half our prize to UBC Geering Up Engineering Outreach, an organization that provides the opportunity for youth across British Columbia to learn about engineering, science, and technology.

  2. Supporting the UBC Rocket Team: We would create a fund that can support the development of innovative design, manufacturing, technical skills, and teamwork.

Winning the challenge would be a major milestone for us, and we are keen to pass on our knowledge gained from this challenge to the next cohort of students at UBC. Continuously recruiting a strong base of students every year is very important to the program. The program was started by many students who are graduating or have recently graduated. Many of them come back to support new members. The club has been built around great relationships between students, making the club more like a family. We want to keep that going.

What is next for the team and for the rocket development?

One of our program’s biggest challenges is having a convenient location to test our rockets. Since UBC is in the heart of Vancouver, we cannot test our rocket locally. We pack all of our equipment into a trailer and travel to the mountains in order to test in a safe environment which takes up a lot of our time. We are currently developing a more permanent testing facility that allows for longer, more frequent tests. This new facility will help push us to more automated testing to reduce logistics. Every day we are making small steps in the right direction to accomplish our goals, and an upgraded facility will help our program drastically.