Purdue University students are designing and building a rocket engine that might be used in a vehicle to land on the moon.
Graduate students Thomas Feldman and Andrew Rettenmaier are part of a team developing a rocket motor through the NASA-funded Project Morpheus, which includes research to develop new technologies for future trips to the moon, Mars or asteroids.
Two other groups from Armadillo Aerospace in Texas and NASA's Johnson Space Center also are in the process of designing an engine under the same requirements. The most promising design will be chosen for the vehicle.
The rocket must meet stringent design and performance specifications related to factors including efficiency, size and weight limits, thrusting power, and the ability to dynamically throttle the rocket from 1,300-4,200 pounds of thrust, Feldman said.
"This thrusting range is needed because initially, when the lander is fully fueled, it will weigh significantly more than at the end of the mission when most of the propellant will be gone," he said.
The rocket, which will use liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellants, will be designed, built and tested using specialized facilities at Purdue's Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories, including a new facility to liquefy the methane propellant.
The research, which began as a senior design project last fall, is entirely voluntary.
"It's commendable for students to take on a demanding project like this totally in their spare time," said William Anderson, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and adviser to the students. "They are applying their advanced training for a truly important venture."
Feldman and Rettenmaier, who both have career aspirations to work in the aerospace industry, said the project is providing valuable experience and preparation for the job market.
"This is something you would never learn by reading a book or taking conventional classes," said Feldman, who is from Austin, Texas. "Most universities aren't going to provide the experience to do this."
Feldman recently was awarded a 2011 Liquid Propulsion Student Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Liquid Propulsion Technical Committee.
Rettenmaier, who is from Fort Wayne, Ind., said Purdue's propulsion facilities influenced his decision to remain at the university for his graduate studies.
"It's such an interesting and unique place to work," he said. "If we design an engine that ends up landing on the moon, I think that would be a great accomplishment."
The engineers will first build a "battleship engine," or a heavily instrumented test engine that's far bulkier than the actual finished motor. The test engine will be needed to validate design concepts and will be fired up later this summer. Data from the experiments will be used to refine the engine design.
Explore further: Final flight of European space vehicle to Space Station goes out with a 'Big Bang'