Rocket engines must be more stable if we’re going to get to Mars

Apr 5, 2017

Two words can mean the difference between life and death when rockets blast into space: combustion instability.

That’s what makes rocket engines blow up.

To explore Mars and the rest of outer space, scientists need to develop rocket engines that get off the ground without exploding. Researchers from the University of Michigan, Purdue and MIT are working to solve this engineering challenge.

At University of Michigan, Karthik Duraisamy directs the new Center of Excellence on Rocket Combustor Dynamics. He's also a professor of aerospace engineering.

Rocket engines are incredibly powerful and complex. For example, at the time of takeoff, the rocket that brought men to the moon used six times as much power as the state of Michigan, Duraisamy said.

“When you have so much energy being packed in such a small device and for short amounts of time, then the design of these systems becomes incredibly difficult,” he said.

Traditionally, researchers design, build and test rockets, by relying on physical experiments to determine whether a rocket engine will blow up. 

Instead of relying on the trial and error of physical tests, Duraisamy said his team plans to simulate rocket engine designs on a computer.

These virtual tests will decrease the amount of time and money it takes to test rocket engine systems.

“Instead of running 20 tests or 50 tests, we want them to get away with three or four physical tests, and many, many simulations,” he said.

Listen to the full interview above to hear Duraisamy explain why rocket engines explode sometimes, and how technology has (and hasn’t) changed for rocket designers in the past decades. 

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