UKZN fires up rocket engine aimed at satellite launch vehicles


The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN’s) Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG) has successfully tested a liquid propellant rocket engine as the first step towards developing a launch vehicle for placing satellites into Earth orbit.

The Ablative Blow-down Liquid Engine (ABLE) was designed by mechanical engineering students in the master’s and doctoral programmes at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

ASReG is developing designs for a commercial launch vehicle capable of placing satellites weighing up to 200 kg into orbit for communications, environmental monitoring, agriculture and Earth observation purposes. The successful operation of ABLE will enable the group to begin work on a flight-weight engine to power the proposed rocket, the UKZN said in a press release.

ASReG’s Space Propulsion Programme is supported by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), which is fully funding the sounding rocket development research and the liquid propulsion initiative, as well as the students that are involved.

The successful ABLE test campaign took place at the Denel Overberg Test Range in the Western Cape over a three-week period. Ten mechanical engineering students put the SAFFIRE ABLE rocket engine through its paces on a test stand to measure its performance. The ABLE combusts liquid oxygen (LOX) and jet A-1 fuel to produce just under two tons of thrust, and is similar in design to engines powering the newest small satellite launch vehicles.

For the test campaign, students not only built the engine itself, but designed and qualified a state-of-the-art test facility with propellant storage tanks, an automated engine control system, and a thrust stand to restrain the engine throughout its operation.

During testing, the ABLE produced 18 kilonewtons (about 1.8 tons) of thrust in a series of short and long-duration burns. Although there are bigger commercial engines in operation, ABLE is one of the most powerful student-built liquid rocket engines ever produced, the UKZN said.

“With this development, UKZN has further strengthened its position as a South African centre of excellence in aerospace propulsion engineering. In March this year, ASReG broke the African hybrid rocket altitude record when it successfully launched a Phoenix rocket to 18 km. ABLE is a different kind of engine, running on liquid propellants rather than the solid and liquid combination of the Phoenix rocket,” the UKZN said.

“Mastering liquid rocket engine technology places UKZN and ASReG in a strong position to accelerate the development of a commercial launch vehicle. The ultimate goals are to create an African satellite launch capability, support South Africa’s indigenous satellite and space data industries, and boost the country’s fourth industrial revolution (4IR) readiness.”

The University of KwaZulu-Natal is currently the only South African university pursuing an applied rocket propulsion programme, producing graduates with skills in advanced manufacturing, aerospace systems design, and computational analysis.

The programme started in 2010, and a number of students involved in it are now working in key technical positions in institutions such as Armscor, Milkor and Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM).

RDM has worked with the UKZN on its Phoenix rockets, and in November 2020 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 the SAFFIRE (South African First Integrated Rocket Engine) project.

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.