µHoubolt is our very first rocket to fly with our self developed liquid rocket engine. The engine uses ethanol as fuel and nitrous oxide as oxidizer, the propellant is pressure fed by nitrogen. Our long term goal of the TUWST is to reach space with a self-developed liquid-fuel rocket. µHoubolt acts as our entry point in the world of liquid-fueled rockets – it was designed to face all the challenges of flying liquid on a small scale. This agile approach allows for faster and cheaper design iterations and paves the way to our liquid-fueled space rocket Houbolt.
Mission objective and requirements
The mission goal is to build and launch a liquid fuelled rocket designed to be as simple as possible. Due to the Houbolt concept, the following requirements must be met:
- Flight altitude 3 km
- 1kg payload
- Successful recovery with redundant two-stage parachute system
Key data of µHoubolt
The airframe was designed to first of all be as lightweight as possible to help with a sufficiently high rail exit velocity and secondly to be as simple as possible to not complicate the launch preparation procedure. This ensures that we can focus on the preparation of the more complex propulsion section.
The nose cones core is 3D-printed with PVA, a water-soluble filament. After laminating it with glass fiber reinforced plastic, the core gets removed by dissolving it in water. Small scale tests appear to be promising.
The carbon fiber reinforced plastic main tube has a diameter of 123 mm and cutouts for refueling the tanks. Rail buttons guide µHoubolt along the launch rail.
µHoubolt uses a clamp band for recovery. Twelve v-clamps are bolted to a metal band. The ends are joined together with a piece of string to hold the nose cone and the body tube together. The clamp band is tightened with a tangential screw. At apogee, a CYPRES line cutter cuts the string to allow the metal band to relax and the nose cone to separate. The two coupler parts and the clamp band are machined in house. We have already proven the idea to work by using a prototype of the clamp band in our experimental rocket STR-10 Leonor.
After separation, slingshot elastic bands eject the nose cone to allow the drogue to catch wind and to decelerate µHoubolt to about 20 m/s. 300 m AGL a second line cutter frees the deployment bag of the main chute, which gets pulled out of the body tube by the drogue. The main chute will decelerate the rocket to 6 m/s.
The vehicle has two separate propellant tanks for the oxidizer (nitrous oxide) and the fuel (ethanol). The nitrous oxide tank has a volume of 2300 ml, a working pressure of 40 bar and an empty weight of 1200g, while the ethanol tank has a volume of 860 ml, a working pressure of 30 bar and an empty weight of 680 g. With nitrous oxide tanks in particular, care must be taken to ensure that all materials are compatible with the medium to be stored.
Due to issues in sourcing nitrous oxide and the inherent risk of thermal decomposition of nitrous oxide we conducted tests at cryogenic temperatures to evaluate the use of liquid oxygen (LOX) as oxidizer instead. The first version of µHoubolt will not fly with LOX, as the design is already too mature for such a change. However we intend to use LOX in the next iteration of µHoubolt.
The propellants are fed from the propellant tanks into the combustion chamber by means of pressurization with nitrogen. The nitrogen is stored in high pressure vessels and regulated to the required working pressure of the tanks. This method represents a less complex option in comparison to other feed methods. In rockets as small as µHoubolt, it has the additional advantage that the increased mass of the more robust propellant tanks is far outweighed by the absence of other components like pumps, a gas generator, electric motors / battery, etc.
For µHoubolt, paintball pressure components will be used as 300 bar pressure tanks. The associated equipment (pressure regulators, fill equipment, …) is available in great variety commercially, which reduces design time, costs and ensures a certain level of safety.
As these parts have not been made for use in rocketry and no detailed performance data is available, it first had to be evaluated if the components are able to supply the necessary pressure as well as mass flow rate. These tests have been successful, meaning these commercial off the shelf components are viable for use in µHoubolt.
The heart of the vehicle is our in-house developed and manufactured liquid rocket engine. As this is the first engine of its kind in use by the TU Wien Space Team, a lot of validation and testing has to be done to ensure smooth operation for the actual launch of the rocket – to facilitate this, the test stand TS02 has been developed and manufactured by the team.
Injector & Valves
µHoubolt is powered by the engine “Amalia”, with a thrust of approximately 600N. The oxidizer is fed into the center of the engine from above and passes through orifices that are used to regulate the mass flow and decouples it from the pressure in the combustion chamber. Fuel is fed into the engine from the side through a cavitating venturi, which serves the same purpose. The propellants are then introduced into the combustion chamber through an unlike-doublet impingement injector, where streams of oxidizer impinge with streams of fuel to mix and atomize.
Propellant flow is controlled by two ball valves actuated by electrical servo motors, allowing the startup sequence to be configured precisely in software. The engine also includes redundant internal pyrotechnic ignition charges, avoiding the need for placing igniters through the throat and externally wiring them to the launch pad or rocket.
To prevent the combustion chamber walls from overheating and disintegrating from the severe heat of the combustion, a cooling concept is needed. Capacitive, film and ablative cooling was considered. We are currently focusing on ablative cooling as it is simple and has a small mass footprint. Ablative cooling works by coating the inside walls with a heat absorbing material that evaporates while burning, carrying heat away from the combustion chamber walls. An ablative combustion chamber is a consumable built for single use, so it has to be replaced between firings.
Capacitive cooling is even simpler. By having enough heat capacity, the combustion chamber simply withstands the exposed heat without getting too hot. The drawback is that the resulting engine is much heavier, creating problems with aerodynamic stability and reducing the overall rocket performance. Film cooling on the other hand utilizes a film of a fuel-rich mixture close to the combustion chamber walls which evaporates and burns at a lower temperature, essentially shielding the chamber from the intense heat of the main combustion. To implement this, a more complex injection system would be needed, so we prefer the simpler ablative cooling method.
A cooling method that wasn’t considered due to being unsuitable for such a small engine (and difficult to manufacture) is regenerative cooling, where one or both of the propellants flows through cooling channels in the combustion chamber walls before getting injected to be burnt. This method will be considered in the future for larger engines.
The avionics of µHoubolt are used to control the vehicle. Data is collected at multiple places in the rocket using a wide variety of sensors and compared with expected values. “Avionics” is the umbrella term, which in our case is divided into five sub modules:
- ECU (Engine Control Unit) – Has a variety of sensors to validate the flight profile and engine characteristics. It is responsible for actuating the valves, activating igniters and to monitor temperatures and pressures.
- PMU (Power Management Unit) – Serves to power most subsystems in the rocket and converts the voltage from the batteries to the necessary voltage levels. It also contains a safety pin which prevents arming and engine ignition until the pin is removed.
- RCU (Radio Control Unit) – The radio control unit is used to enable communication between the rocket and the ground systems during the flight. Current sensor readings are transmitted dynamically when a favorable signal path is available. Additionally, a GNSS receiver is used to measure the position of the vehicle.
The launch pad, in addition to its own control system, contains the connections to the rocket (power supply, data bus and filling hoses), which can be automatically disconnected and retracted. The oxidizer and pressurant filling procedures are fully automated to avoid the need for personnel to be present, increasing safety. A hold down system is also integrated in the launch pad, which only releases the rocket if the engine performance after ignition is sufficient for a safe liftoff.
Launch in Straubing
On June 25th, the first flight of µHoubolt took place in Straubing, Germany. After a relatively long journey, the launch preparations began around 2 pm. The preparations for the rocket and ground systems went mostly smoothly and within a few hours, the entire launch infrastructure (launch pad, fueling facility, mission control) was set up and ready for operation. Since the maximum altitude there is limited, we reduced the burn duration to 4 seconds in order to reach a maximum altitude of 1 km. After successfully fueling the rocket with both propellant and oxidizer, the rocket was ready for its maiden flight.
The ignition of the engine worked flawlessly. The hold-down mechanism was released, and µHoubolt ascended into the sky. Due to the relatively strong wind and low launch velocity, the rocket turned into the wind, which resulted in a high horizontal speed at apogee, causing the line to the drogue parachute to unfortunately tear. At 250 meters above the ground, the main parachute was deployed, but it also tore due to the high descent speed. µHoubolt made an impact on the Bavarian ground. Despite the crash landing, the launch was a success because the entire propulsion system functioned properly, and only the parachute shock was stronger than anticipated. Nevertheless, we were able to learn from this mistake and use the gathered information for the next iteration of µHoubolt.
After the hard landing in Straubing, we were left with a rocket that was far from airworthy. However, we still wanted to achieve our goal of participating in the EuRoC (European Rocketry Challenge), so we got to work and built a new rocket. This time, we implemented several improvements that should ensure a successful flight. Only a few components could be reused and incorporated into the second version, but a few months later, we had another functional rocket. Before we could actually participate, though, we had to demonstrate a successful hotfire test. We were able to conduct this test on September 30th, making us ready for EuRoC 2022, which took place from October 11th to 18th. Some team members set off three days before the event by car to transport the launch rail, ground systems, and rocket to Ponte de Sor, Portugal. The rest of the team flew in on October 10th and began the rocket preparations shortly after their arrival.
The following day, we set up our exhibition booth in the paddock. µHoubolt was the highlight of the show since it was the only liquid-fueled rocket.
We utilized the second official day of EuRoC to prepare the rocket for the Flight Readiness Review (FRR), scheduled for the next day.
On October 13th, the FRR took place, during which two members of the EuRoC jury meticulously examined the rocket to determine if it met the requirements to participate in the challenge. The jury was impressed with µHoubolt but requested that we submit a few additional documents by the following day.
We submitted the requested documents the next day, enabling us to drive to the launch site the following day.
On October 15th, we set out very early to the launch site, a Portuguese military base. However, we encountered some minor technical issues that unfortunately forced us to postpone the launch to the following day.
We started preparations again very early to launch within the first available window, but the weather didn’t cooperate; it started raining. We had no choice but to hope for better weather in the next launch window. Shortly before 2 pm., we received the news that we could launch in the upcoming time frame and proceeded with fueling and final preparations.
At 14:11, the moment arrived. We received clearance to launch, disconnected our fueling equipment, and started our countdown. The rocket ignited nominally and began its ascent into the cloud-covered sky, reaching an altitude of approximately 2.2 kilometers. Above the cloud cover, at apogee, the flight computer triggered the recovery system, deploying the drogue parachute. At a height of 250 meters, the main parachute was deployed, and the rocket gently landed on a small hill about 1.6 kilometers away. The rocket continuously transmitted its GPS position to us until shortly before landing, but the recovery process was facilitated by one of the many firefighters positioned in the area who observed the descent of our rocket and precisely saw where it landed. We were picked up by a truck from the Portuguese military and were able to return the rocket to the launch site in just 20 minutes. The rocket was practically undamaged, earning us the full score for the Recovery Scoring of the challenge.
By participating in this year’s European Rocketry Challenge, we successfully accomplished the first European student team’s liquid rocket launch with a completely successful recovery. This achievement was recognized by EuRoC, and we were awarded the Flight Award in the Liquid Propulsion 3km class.
Both the other teams and representatives from the aerospace industry showed great interest as we stood out not only due to our significantly more complex propulsion system but also because we were among the smallest rockets.
We are extremely proud of this success and have fully achieved the mission objective for µHoubolt.
Want to know more?
Check out some Videos of our Propulsion Team working on the test stand for the µHoubolt rocket engine:
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