Monday 19 February 2018

Engineers at UCD see rocket launch research take off

Dr David McKeown and Dr William O Connor
Dr David McKeown and Dr William O Connor
Allison Bray

Allison Bray

ENGINEERS at UCD are designing a new rocket launch programme for the European Space Agency which they hope will solve the dangerous and costly problem of excessive vibration during lift-off into space.

The pioneering technology could be the first Irish-designed rocket control programme to be used by the agency's next generation of spaceships in its future missions to space – including to Mars.

The scientists are hoping its first mission will be before 2020.

Spearheading the project is Dr William O'Connor, a dynamics engineer and professor at UCD's School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

His team, including partner Dr David McKeown and a group of post-graduate students, was awarded the €250,000 contract after working on a previous project for the space agency.

The team began working on the project – which could take up to two years – last week. It involves coming up with a complex mathematical "control algorithm" which counter-balances the vibration that occurs when a rocket propels out of Earth's atmosphere.


Typically what happens now is the rocket's engines and thrusters cause massive vibrations when fired, causing the whole structure to bend, Dr O'Connor told the Irish Independent.

"But if there's over-correction, it's like what happens when you release air out of a balloon," he said, "it could crash the rocket.

"Missions have already been lost," he said of aborted launches costly the agency millions of euro due to vibrations.

"Keeping launchers on course when immensely powerful engines are violently shaking the structure is a complex problem," he said.

"This is made even more complex when you consider that there are tonnes of liquid fuel like liquid hydrogen and oxygen sloshing around inside a relatively delicate structure."

Irish Independent

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