Rocket Lab and UC collab: Simple in principle, complex in reality

Auckland’s Rocket Lab and the University of Canterbury are collaborating but it’s not rocket science… it’s aerospace engineering.

The Auckland-based and the university are putting their heads together in an effort to bring the specialist field of aerospace engineering into the mainstream.

Rocket research at University of Canterbury is, of course, already off to a roaring start, with a recent supersonic rocket research project breaking the world altitude record for a small sized rocket motor last year.

We spoke to George Buchanan, UC PhD student and Rocket Lab engineer, about the new collaboration, what they’re looking to achieve and why rocketeering is so important.

Idealog: So George, why do you think it’s taken until 2015 for this collaboration to happen?

George Buchanan: Well it’s a specialist field; until now there simply haven't been New Zealand companies doing cutting edge research in this area. With the emergence of companies like Rocket Lab, there is a need for suitably trained graduates.

I: What types of things will be in the aerospace engineering curriculum?

GB: At an undergraduate level, students work to build and launch a sounding rocket*. Last year, this involved a 'rocket course' where a small group of engineering students built, tested, and launched a fully controlled rocket – as far as we are aware it's the only course like it in the world. At postgraduate level, students are able to focus on a specific area of rocketry, such as slosh dynamics, trajectory optimisation and thrust vectored control.

I: How’s it going so far?

GB: We've done nearly 90 flights in total, including dozens of fully controlled launches and because we're such a small research group everyone needs to be good at both the theoretical and the practical sides of building and controlling rockets.

I: Who’s been involved so far?

GB: The collaboration has involved the development of a PhD programme, which has seen three graduates specialise in various aspects of rocketry. Rocket Lab has also participated as the industry supporter of the university’s UC Rocketry Group, which has worked on numerous projects including the development of supersonic rockets and orbital trajectory optimisation.

I: What do you hope to achieve with this new venture?

GB: The UC Rocketry group’s aim is to advance control theory. Beyond this, the fundamental work the group does is applicable to everything from controlling industrial machines to air quality in homes.

I: For someone who has no clue about rocket science could you explain your role?

GB: My PhD topic is "real time optimising of orbital trajectories" – essentially that comes down to finding the optimal path to fly a rocket along which, like most things in rocketry, is very simple in principle but complex in reality.

I: Crikey.

*According to Wikipedia, a sounding rocket (sometimes called a research rocket), is an instrument-carrying rocket designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments during its sub-orbital flight.