The Michigan Aeronautical Science Association (MASA) team took home 2nd place in the Advanced Category at the 2016 Intercollegiate Rocket Competition (IREC). Their 15-foot tall, fiberglass rocket The Great Emancipator was the only student-built hybrid rocket to make it off the launch pad, soaring to 14,000 feet.
For MASA, this performance represents the culmination of three years of hybrid- motor development. As Robyn Hinchman, MASA President, recounts:
“We began working with hybrid technology [which combines solid fuel with liquid oxidizer] back in 2013. The first year was our exploratory phase. It was all about figuring out in broad terms what we needed to do. Our second year focused on testing and finished with a static test fire to measure the motor’s thrust. This past year, we ironed out ignition and combustion instability issues and flew.”
Throughout that time, MASA tapped into insights and experience from the broader aerospace propulsion community. Initially, MASA acquired deeper understanding of hybrid rocket sizing and stability through correspondences with hybrid experts at Stanford. Later, MASA received feedback on their design from Blue Origin propulsion engineers and their founder Matt McKeown, current Dragon Propulsion Manager at SpaceX.
Over 50 teams nation-wide participated in this year’s IREC competition; of these, eight competed in the Advanced category with the added challenge of designing and testing their own rocket motor. The difficulty of this category was demonstrated by the competition outcome; only two student rockets successfully launched from the pad, with MASA providing the sole successful demonstration of hybrid motor technology.
At the competition, students were encouraged to learn from each other and openly share their experiences via presentations that detailed their design drivers and outcomes. As Robyn reflects, the transportation of the 15-foot tall rocket from its home at U-M to the competition site in Green River, Utah was a challenge in of itself:
“For it to fit in a car, our rocket has to be transported in pieces to the competition site. Final integration ends up taking place a day or two before the start of the competition. Over the years, we’ve gotten much better at making this a smooth process. It’s all about checklists – making sure you bring everything you need to avoid those 3am hardware store runs.”
With a hybrid motor under their belt, MASA is now turning their sights to future possibilities. Robyn notes:
“Every year, we try to come up with ambitious projects that force a redesign of our rocket. We will likely stick with a hybrid design this upcoming year but will look into [new technologies like] supercharging and composite overwrapped pressure vessels. [Long-term], we’d like to investigate liquid engines.”