Aims to Make BU the First University to Launch a Rocket into Space
By Mark Dwortzan
Working long hours in the basement of 110 Cummington Mall, the Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group’s (BURPG) 35 undergraduates—33 from the College of Engineering, one from the College of Arts & Sciences and one from the College of Communications—are designing, building, testing and publicizing Starscraper, a 30-foot long, 12-inch-diameter rocket designed to propel a 100-pound payload into space and land it safely back on Earth. Assembly and testing is planned for the spring 2015 semester, with a tentative launch date in July in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
As it works through technical challenges, the group is also seeking to raise funds through its new Kickstarter crowdfunding site. If all goes well, Starscraper would be the first university-based rocket that breaches the 100-kilometer altitude Kármán Line, commonly regarded as the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.
If all goes well, Starscraper would be the first university-based rocket that breaches the 100-kilometer altitude Kármán Line, commonly regarded as the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.
BURPG would also become the first non-governmental and non-corporate entity to do so using a hybrid propulsion system, in which solid fuel reacts with a liquid oxidizer—a combustive mix that provides sufficient thrust to get the rocket off the ground. The current BU system consists of a six-segment structure made of tire rubber (the solid fuel) and a tank of nitrous oxide (the liquid oxidizer), commonly used to sedate dental patients. Its payload will include a GPS tracking system, but future versions could carry everything from telescopes to drug manufacturing experiments into space.
Founded in 2003, BURPG initially built small solid-fuel rockets, the kind used in missiles and fighter jets, before moving on to lab-bench-scale hybrid rockets, which are safer and simpler to build than liquid propellant rockets. By the spring of 2012, the group had whittled down to five aerospace engineering seniors, who saw in an enterprising freshman named Armor Harris (ME’15) their last best hope of keeping the flame alive. He became the group’s president before the semester was out.
“I saw the work they’d done on hybrid rockets, and wanted to do something that no university-based group had done before—to launch a rocket into space,” said Harris, who made a presentation proposing such a project before 50 fellow students that fall. “All the juniors and seniors thought it was crazy and never came back; all the freshmen and sophomores stuck around, and now they’re the nucleus of the group.”
Even the group’s faculty advisor, Lecturer Caleb Farny (ME), was initially skeptical about the project.
“When Armor presented his vision in 2012 to dramatically scale the team’s goal to the much-larger task of delivering such a rocket to space, I rolled my eyes and told him this goal was likely unattainable, for multiple reasons,” Farny recalls. “Under
Armor’s leadership, the team has worked tirelessly ever since to achieve numerous successive goals and solve technical challenges.”
An amateur rocket enthusiast who had launched several small-scale rockets before he arrived at Boston University, Harris wowed judges at the College of Engineering’s first Imagineering Contest with a sounding rocket designed to reach a 100,000 feet altitude that he had partially built in the Imagineering Lab (he launched it a few months later from a field in his home state of Oregon). Starscraper is in many ways a follow-on to this achievement, and the capstone of three years at the helm of the BURPG.
During Harris’s first two years with the group, he guided the development of a six-inch-diameter hybrid rocket, followed by an 8-inch one. The larger rocket was successfully test-fired at a rocket range in Sudbury, Massachusetts, achieving 99 percent of the level of performance it was designed for on its second firing.
“At 80 per cent, you’re really doing well; 99 percent on the second firing is really outstanding,” said Harris, noting that hybrid rockets have historically not performed nearly as well as specified. “That proved to all of us that we could actually do this mission.”
And to its corporate sponsors—GE, Raytheon, FloDesign and SpaceX—which, along with donations through the ENG Annual Fund, are footing part of the bill. The BURPG rocket is about 10 times cheaper to develop than a comparable NASA hybrid rocket, but still costly enough to require substantial funding.
Several BURPG members have netted internships or job offers from the three corporate sponsors and other companies in the spaceflight industry, including Harris, who is on his second internship as a propulsion development engineer with SpaceX, where he plans to work upon graduation. More importantly, participants are gaining invaluable experience in hands-on engineering, building a solid foundation for their entire careers.
“In the classroom, students can learn how to derive Bernoulli’s equation (which governs fluid flow in pipes), but down here they can build a high-pressure fluid system,” said Harris. “The real value of this mission is that it can serve as a model for engineering education in which students apply theoretical concepts as they learn how to design, build, test, and integrate components of a working system.”