RDM and UKZN sign cooperation agreement on rocket propulsion


Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) have signed a cooperation agreement on rocket propulsion as an early step for a commercial satellite launch vehicle.

The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) covers cooperation in the development of new rocket propulsion technologies, including collaborating on a liquid propellant rocket engine project named SAFFIRE, RDM said. The SAFFIRE initiative – South African First Integrated Rocket Engine – is a project created by UKZN’s Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG).

SAFFIRE originally started out as a paper design study by ASReG. The modular and compact liquid propellant rocket engine would power a hypothetical 75 kg payload satellite launch vehicle.

ASReG runs the only university-based launch vehicle propulsion programme in South Africa, and is supported by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). The immediate aim of SAFFIRE is the development of a compact rocket engine that can be clustered to power the first and second stages of a commercial small-satellite launch vehicle.

RDM will support the programme with element design, analysis and the manufacturing of key components, as well as the static evaluation of these rocket engines.

South Africa is geographically well-placed to launch satellites into polar orbits and has clear airspace which could allow more frequent launches than sites in Northern Hemisphere locations like Europe and the United States, where rocket launches can interfere with commercial flight schedules. South Africa has already designed and built a number of small satellites, which have been launched by other countries.

ASReG is located within UKZN’s Discipline of Mechanical Engineering where more than a dozen graduate students are currently enrolled in Masters and Doctoral degrees focusing on rocket engine design, turbomachinery and associated technologies, such as airframe design and launch systems.

The research group’s two primary objectives are to develop aerospace technologies related to rockets, spacecraft and turbomachine systems in support of an indigenous South African space launch capability, and develop highly skilled engineers for the South African aerospace industry.

ASReG’s propulsion programme is more than ten years old. The group has built and test-fired numerous small and medium sized hybrid motors over the years and carried out two student-led launch campaigns at Denel Overberg Test Range. In August 2014 ASReG successfully launched the 4.4 metre Phoenix-1A hybrid fuel sounding rocket. It reached a height of 2.5 km, after being launched from a custom-built Mobile Rocket Launch Platform (MRLP). UKZN subsequently developed the Phoenix-1B rocket, which it attempted to launch from the Overberg Test Range in February 2019. Although the rocket motor ignited nominally, a software fault on the main propellant valve caused the failure of the vehicle. Such failures are common in rocket programmes and represent learning opportunities for the young rocket engineers involved.

The Phoenix Hybrid Sounding Rocket Programme is a human capital development programme, funded by the Department of Science and Innovation, that seeks to develop key expertise in the engineering disciplines of rocket propulsion technology, launch vehicle design and flight dynamics modelling. This year ASReG introduced the first dedicated undergraduate module in Rocket Propulsion at a South African university, which is offered to students in their final year of the UKZN Mechanical Engineering degree.

The Phoenix programme aims to provide its students with practical rocket propulsion test experience in addition to a strong theoretical base. It is hoped that in time this will lead to the development of commercial solid-propellant sounding rockets that can reach in excess of 100 km to enable physics research in the high atmosphere. In the meantime, UKZN plans to soon launch another Phoenix-1B rocket which will reach 15 km, while dedicating significant resources to the commercial SAFFIRE liquid propellant engine programme.

RDM is well equipped to support ASReG’s rocket projects as the company, through earlier entities such as Kentron, Houwteq and Somchem, was the primary developer and manufacturer of the space launch propulsion systems for South Africa’s space programme. Solid rocket propulsion systems were used to launch payloads of more than 350 kg into low-Earth orbit. Four South African space rockets were built, and three launched-between 1989 and 1990, but without useful payloads. The RSA-3 rocket, which was never launched, can still be seen at the South African Air Force Museum at Air Force Base Swartkop outside Pretoria.

A rocket motor test.

South Africa’s space launch programme was shelved in 1994 when South Africa joined the Missile Technology Control Regime and the focus moved towards missile propulsion systems for, amongst others, Denel Dynamics’ Umkhonto, A-Darter, Ingwe and Mokopa missiles and other international clients. The result is that most of this strategic propulsion capability still exists within RDM today.