Yes, it’s rocket science!
At the University of Stuttgart in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, students design and build a record-breaking rocket and launch it into space.
It sounds like science fiction, but at the University of Stuttgart, it has become a reality: Students are building a real rocket in their free time. And not just any rocket: The student rocketry team is trying to break the student world record for hybrid exploration rockets.
Their goal is to launch the slim and lightweight machine at supersonic speed more than 100 kilometers into space, thus beating the current world record of 104 kilometers held by a team from the United States.
Tea Kovzan, a 20-year-old aerospace engineering student from Bosnia and Croatia, smiles when asked what makes this project so special: “Not many students can say that they built and launched a rocket somewhere,” she says.
A highly innovative rocket with record-breaking potential
The project she and about 60 other students are working on is called Hybrid Engine Development, or HyEnD, for short. The student-made sounding rocket is the second of its kind built at the University of Stuttgart. It is named N2ORTH and features highly innovative technology and materials including a hybrid engine that uses solid fuel and liquid nitrous oxide.
Its predecessor reached a height of 32.2 kilometers in 2016, which was a world record back then.
HyEnd is supported by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, DLR) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. The N2ORTH rocket, HyEnD’s most powerful rocket to date, is scheduled to launch in the spring of 2023 at the Swedish Space Corporation’s (SSC) Kiruna site for its world record attempt.
An ideal place to combine theory and practice
HyEnD is a student club, and everybody is welcome – from first semester students to students finishing their master’s. And: Even though most of the club members study aerospace engineering, it is not a requirement. “Anyone who wants to build a rocket and have some fun doing it is welcome”, says Tea Kovzan’s colleague, Bernabe Lorenzo Avila from La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain.
Bernabe Lorenzo Avila, 21 years old, is working on his master’s degree in aerospace engineering at University of Stuttgart. He routinely spends several hours a day at the Materials Testing Institute (MPA) where the rocket workshop is located. “There is no minimum time requirement, except for two weekly meetings”, he says. “Everybody contributes as much as she or he can.”
Any worries about a lack of skills are also unfounded, says Tea Kovzan. “When I started, I didn’t have a lot of technical knowledge”, she says. “But everybody was so supportive and shared what they knew.” Now, she works on avionics, the brain of the rocket. The avionics system is responsible for the rocket’s power supply, downlink, data acquisition, video acquisition and parachute deployment.
N2ORTH is more than seven meters long and weighs just under 70 kilograms. The students designed the rocket themselves and most parts, including the avionics, are hand-made.
The quest for the world record brings challenges and advantages
Bernabe Lorenzo Avila works on the structure and aerodynamics. “I always wanted to study aerospace engineering”, he says. “When I saw the curriculum at the University of Stuttgart, I realized how much I could learn here”. The University of Stuttgart is one of Germany’s leading research universities. It looks back on a long tradition as a technical university and offers highly ranked programs in civil, mechanical, industrial and electrical engineering.
What makes this experience extra special is the fact that he gets to put his theoretical knowledge immediately into practice by designing and constructing a rocket – in large parts – by hand. This involves laminating carbon fibers and fiber glass to build the super lightweight body of the rocket. The carbon fiber tank – also developed by the students – is made by wrapping the carbon fiber fabric tightly using a special winding machine.
In the quest to find sturdier yet lighter materials that can withstand the extreme strains of supersonic speed and space travel, the students go to great lengths. They calculate forces and pressures and then develop – for example – their own resin to hold together the carbon fibers for the rocket’s long and slender body. They also developed a weight-saving way of connecting the fins to the rocket’s body.
The rocket’s nose is another ingenious part developed by the students: It consists of aramid honeycombs filled with cork, making it light, tough and thermally resistant. The metal injectors for N2ORTH were also designed by students. No doubt: When going for a world record, every detail counts.
The recovery team is working on sewing the rocket’s parachute with special materials and features that can bring the rocket back to earth safely – also by hand. Most materials for the rocket and the parachute are sourced from Baden-Württemberg-based companies. For Bernabe Lorenzo Avila, this has another benefit: “I get to travel all over Baden-Württemberg and meet really interesting, friendly and supportive people”, he says.
Traveling for the HyEnd project is something both Bernabe Lorenzo Avila and Tea Kovzan enjoy. Tea Kovzan went to Portugal last year for the European rocketry challenge. “It was great to meet the other teams – the spirit of the whole event was so collaborative and supportive and it was an amazing learning experience for all of us”, she says. Bernabe Lorenzo Avila looks forward to the world-record attempt in northern Sweden next spring: “It’s great to travel with friends and start the rocket”, he says.
Mentoring and support contribute to the students’ success
Working on the rocket has exponentially expanded his theoretical and practical knowledge. It has also boosted his self-esteem: “Before I came here, I didn’t know how much I am capable of,” says Bernabe Lorenzo Avila who started his studies in Stuttgart at the age of 17.
Both he and Tea Kovzan participated in the mentoring program offered for international students by the University of Stuttgart. “I was lucky, my mentor also studied aerospace engineering, so she could also help me with my studies”, says Tea Kovzan. For Bernabe Lorenzo Avila, the mentoring experience was so inspiring that he chose to become a mentor himself in his third semester. “I wanted to help someone in the same way I was helped”, he says.
For both students, studying at the University of Stuttgart is an enriching experience. “I really like how friendly the people are and the professors are very capable and supportive”, Bernabe Lorenzo Avila says. He and Tea Kovzan both appreciate the fact that the university is surrounded by nature. “There are four lakes really close to the university”, Tea Kovzan says. “There, I took long walks to relax during my exam period.”
For international students who consider coming to Baden-Württemberg, both have the following advice: “Just go for it – you will learn so much and it will be fun.”
Author: Siri Schubert