Portable rocket aims to fire school students' enthusiasm for engineering

A British student has designed and built a portable rocket motor which can be fired safely and observed at close range to help engineers, researchers and even school children study the combustion process.

The rocket engine’s 25-year old designer, James Arkwright, who has spent the past five years studying aerospace engineering and astronautics at London’s Kingston University, has now been asked to present the educational tool in the undergraduate competition at the International Astronautical Congress in Korea later this month.

The 50cm-tall rocket motor is made from graphite, steel and acrylic, and will allow students from school age to degree level to learn more about the mechanics of a rocket and watch how fuel burns in a its combustion chamber.

It is a hybrid rocket, similar to those now being used for vehicles intended for space tourism. It uses a gaseous oxidiser: nitrous oxide and a solid fuel: acrylic – a common household plastic. “The heat inside the rocket reaches approximately 3,000C, so we’ve had to design something which can contain this heat and pass a number of safety tests,” Arkwright said.

The design has the potential to help researchers learn how to make such rockets safer and more efficient, said Dr Barnaby Osborne, Kingston’s senior lecturer in aerospace engineering and astronautics. “Although many private companies carry out similar tests to the ones James has been doing, their results are often commercially sensitive and kept under lock and key,” he explained.

“This motor will allow engineering students and researchers of the future carry out tests which ultimately have the possibility to transform rocket design. Researchers can use it to monitor performance and analyse how different types of fuels perform.”

The design will also help primary school children to get involved in engineering, according to Arkwright, who plans to showcase it to an audience at Kingston Grammar School. “School-aged children don’t always know why engineering is so important, so it is good to be able to give them real demonstrations which help bring our work to life,” he said. “Hopefully this could encourage more young children to think about a career in engineering.”

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