Explosive! USU student space team wins $5,000 for rocket initiative

By Allee Evensen and Rhett Wilkinson

PROMONTORY POINT, Utah—Standing in a plume of smoke and dust, members of the Utah State University student launch initiative team were all smiles Thursday as they watched the final leg of their two-semester project explode on a dusty hill in remote northern Utah.

While former NASA astronauts, engineers and hundreds of other guests watched from a distance as the 154-foot-long ATK Demonstration-3 rocket spewed smoke and dust, the USU team stood mere feet from the 5,000-degree flame that issued from what ATK says is world’s largest rocket.

It was all part of a reward to the USU team for championing the 2010-11 NASA University Launch Initiative. The competition involved more than three dozen universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This was the team’s third first-place recognition in four years.

“Our engineering program totally kicks A,” said Nate Andersen, a member of USU’s student team. “Utah State’s engineering program is one of the best in the nation, absolutely, hands-down.”

The team has been working on the project since August 2010. Their research has focused on redesigning the rocket nozzle, which expands combustion gases so that exhaust exits the nozzle at extremely high velocities. Bell-shaped nozzles, which are commonly used in spacecraft engines, are rigid and designed for a single altitude. The USU team designed a state-of-the-art nozzle called an aerospike that can be used at nearly any altitude.

It was this design that pushed the team ahead at the national competition last April.

In addition to an overall first place, they took home the award for best vehicle design, which encompasses the most innovative creative, safety-conscious rocket design.

In ceremonies shortly before the static rocket test, the USU team received a $5,000 grant from NASA. The rocket test was the latest version of new rocket technologies that Ogden-based ATK has been developing in recent years. The company, which produced generations of booster rockets for the Space Shuttle program, is developing the new rocket module in the hopes of selling the design to NASA for future space exploration.

ATK officials said the main goals of the static motor firing were  to measure the five-segment rocket’s performance and to test new materials in the motor joints at hot temperatures.  Intentional flaws were introduced in the joint to allow hot gas to  penetrate into part of the robust joint to verify joint performance.

DM-3 is the largest human-rated solid rocket motor built today,  measuring 12 feet in diameter and 154 feet in length, according to ATK. The five-segment  motor is based on the Space Shuttle’s four-segment boosters, but it has  been upgraded to incorporate modern technologies and materials that were  not used on the shuttle booster, company officials said. The new prototype produces 30 percent  more thrust than the four-segment motor while utilizing new materials  that reduce cost and weight.

During the static test-firing, the motor is laid horizontally and secured to a base, allowing scientists to measure thrust—or the force it creates—while conducting scores of other tests. In a similar test of an earlier motor design, the DM-2, last year, engineers cooled the engine to 40 degrees before ignition. This year’s motor was heated to above 90 degrees to test the rocket in different temperatures that space vehicles may encounter on launch day.

“It’s very stimulating and exciting to be involved with a development program,” said Harry Reed, the DM-3 project propulsion director.

The rocket, which has been created using parts of older space shuttles, promises to be one of the safest to date, ATK officials say. When launched, it produces roughly 3.6 billion pounds of force, equivalent to 22 million horsepower.

“It means a lot. It means more than just a paycheck,” said Brandon Ward, an instrumentalist who worked on the team that developed the rocket. “Hopefully, it will continue to get people into space.”

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