Not Your Grandfather’s Rockets

An $8.5 million grant makes UB a launch pad for advanced hybrid rocket technology and a new generation of space researchers.

Detail of a rocket engine.

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded the University at Buffalo $8.5 million to study hybrid rockets, a technology that could provide a safe and relatively inexpensive way to explore outer space compared to conventional rockets.

The grant enables UB to establish the Center for Hybrid Rocket Exascale Simulation Technology (CHREST) and provides the resources for UB researchers to explore how hybrid fuels can propel future spacecraft, including satellites, nanosatellites and heavy-payload missions like NASA’s Mars Ascent. It will also support the training of a new, more diverse generation of rocket scientists.

Rocket power

Historically, there have been two types of rocket systems: liquid and solid. Although each system is effective, both are relatively costly and dangerous. Liquid systems often rely on toxic chemicals like hydrazine, and solid systems can’t be turned on and off, limiting scientists’ ability to control them.

Hybrid rockets, which date back to the 1930s, fall in between these two systems. They are inherently safe, use nontoxic, inexpensive fuels, and can be turned on and off. But scientists have been unable to determine how fuel burns in these systems and, as a result, how to optimally design them. Advancements in computing power and artificial intelligence (AI) will allow UB researchers to give them a fresh look.

The university will use the bulk of the funds to acquire extremely powerful computers, which the team will use to simulate previously developed hybrid rockets, as well as future theoretical rockets. The team also will develop machine learning (a subset of AI) algorithms that offer insight into how to better design hybrid rockets.

Launching the next generation of space leaders

Education is another key component of the initiative. Part of the grant will go toward recruiting students from groups underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, “preparing them with hands-on research experiences in a developing field that’s critical for our nation’s future,” says Letitia Thomas, assistant dean for diversity at UB’s school of engineering, and an investigator on the grant.

Another piece includes support for a team of undergraduates to compete in the annual Spaceport America Cup, the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering conference and competition.

Says CHREST director Paul DesJardin, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UB, “This award puts UB students at the forefront of scholarly activity in an incredibly exciting field that’s of great interest to NASA and other federal agencies, as well as private aerospace companies like SpaceX.”