Texas Rocket Engineering Competes for $1M Prize to Reach the Edge of Space

July 27, 2020

photo of students working in the texas rocket engineering labStudents in the Texas Rocket Engineering Lab (TREL) have been busy preparing to rise above all other universities — in fact, all the way up to the edge of space — with the bold goal of becoming the first student team ever to design, build and launch a liquid-propellant rocket to the Karman Line, better known as the edge of space.

For the past year, TREL members have been designing and fabricating components for an industrial-scale rocket for their team’s entry in the Base11 Space Challenge. Teams are competing for a $1 million prize that will be awarded to the first student-led team to design, build, launch and recover a liquid-fueled, single-stage rocket to an altitude of 100 kilometers by December 30, 2021. If realized, the prize could be used to propel UT rocket engineering education in the years to come.

Since TREL was established as part of the Firefly@UT rocket engineering education program in 2018, the team has expanded to over 150 students. Students from a variety of disciplines across the university make up the growing team, including several engineering majors (aerospace, computational, electrical, computer, mechanical and chemical) as well as physics, computer science, business, public relations, art, finance and psychology majors. A handful of graduate students are also involved.

The team’s rocket, Halcyon, will be larger than any rocket ever built by UT students at approximately 27 feet long and 15 inches in diameter. Grace Calkins, TREL’s director of engineering and a third-year aerospace engineering major, is one of a growing number of women serving in TREL leadership roles. She said that Halcyon’s engine propellant system and structure are experimental and uniquely designed.

photo of grace calkins
Grace Calkins, TREL Director of Engineering

“It’s important to mention that our rocket engine design uses a liquid bi-propellant fueled by Rocket-Propellant-1 (RP1) and liquid oxygen (LOx), which is really hard to perfect,” Calkins said. “Most college rocket teams just buy the propulsion system, but we designed ours. The rocket’s structure is made of innovative carbon fiber/foam core and its tanks are carbon overwrapped pressure vessels, which is also really advanced for a student team design.”

Members of TREL opened the 2,000-square-foot fabrication lab at the J.J. Pickle Research campus in late June of 2019, where they have since then been working diligently designing, fabricating and testing various rocket components and flight software. Test results from last year will be used to finalize the rocket components moving forward.

Additional testing will include ignitor and injector tests for the propulsion system, pressure vessel tests, and parachute drop tests using skydiving technology to ensure the team’s recovery deployment system is working. Plans to perform a hot fire test of the engine are also in the works, which Priyal Soni, TREL’s director of operations and a third-year aerospace engineering major, said is the first step to launching Halcyon.

photo of priyal soni
Priyal Soni, TREL Director of Operations

“The first big step to launching this rocket is to know whether or not our engine actually works,” Soni said. “The rocket can’t go anywhere without being propelled, so we will conduct a hot fire test using propellant and run it through all of the components. This will be the first verification to see if our designs work together, much like a full run through of the engine.”

The initial hot fire test will use a heat sink engine, a heavier engine built for data analysis and educational purposes. Hot fire tests of the flight engine, the engine that will be used when Halcyon launches, will take place closer to launch. Production of the flight weight engine began in spring.

As director of operations, Soni works closely with Calkins on the leadership team. Soni is responsible for managing workflow and timelines, creating an environment of diversity and inclusion and eventually, integrating sub-teams into one larger team when the time comes to assemble the rocket.

“When I joined TREL as a freshman, I learned that not only do I enjoy working on these kinds of projects, but that it’s also very rewarding seeing them from start to finish,” Soni said. “Seeing this project to the end is definitely the end goal for Halcyon and the Base11 competition. However, TREL is a research lab and as the director of operations, my goal is to see our group expand beyond its current project into the many fields within aerospace engineering and rocketry.”

Once all components have been finalized and tested, assembly of the rocket will begin. When the team receives the green light to launch, Halcyon will begin its journey to the edge of space at Spaceport America, New Mexico. Calkins and Soni hope to attend the launch in person along with other TREL members.

photo of trel member with rocket fuel tank
A fuel tank for Halcyon helps provide scale for the rocket's actual size, which will be larger than any rocket ever built by UT students at approximately 27 feet long and 15 inches in diameter.

TREL Team Member Testimonials

Michael Evangelista, TREL Recovery Principal Engineer, Aerospace Engineering, Sophomore

"TREL has given me exposure to high-level engineering practices and concepts that I wouldn't have learned until taking junior/senior level classes or entering the aerospace industry. I've had the freedom to design and manage tests with others and see my work come to fruition. Most importantly, managing and working with a large-scale team of classmates has greatly improved my interpersonal skills. My favorite TREL memory was the the black powder test that I participated in during fall 2019. I was able to help design, build, and operate a test to verify some parachute parameters, plus seeing a black powder ignition up close was really awesome."

Courtney Hodgson, TREL Fluid Systems Systems Engineer, Aerospace Engineering, Sophomore

"My work in TREL as the systems engineer for the fluids team has profoundly benefited the path and success of my aerospace engineering degree. As an underclassman, TREL has provided me with the unique opportunity to delve into the technicality of upper division fluid dynamics, as well as the conceptualization of industry-like systems engineering, both of which have helped me define my academic passions early in on my degree. Overall, I love TREL's collaborative, supportive culture across teams, for TREL fosters a community of both personal and shared growth."

photo of students working on TREL ignitor test stand
TREL members working on their ignitor test stand at Firefly Aerospace this summer. Activities have been limited and deadlines pushed back due to COVID-19.

The Texas Engineering Rocket Lab, directed by lecturer and researcher Leon Vanstone in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, was established under the Firefly@UT program. A $1 million, multi-year partnership between UT Austin and the nonprofit organization Firefly Academy, the unique program is open to students of all disciplines and offers two formal rocket engineering courses taught by UT instructors and Firefly mentors.