EL PASO, Texas - The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) has been awarded a $5 million grant from NASA to develop the next generation of rocket engines using liquid methane. The methane-based rocket technology would be used for in-space propulsion and ascent and descent engines for Mars and lunar landers.
Liquid methane, a new form of green propellant, is a promising fuel for spacecraft, according to Professor and Chair of Mechanical Engineering Ahsan Choudhuri, Ph.D., who is the project's principal investigator.
The development of methane rocket engines is identified as a critically enabling technology in the NASA Space Technology Roadmap. Human-Mars mission architectures point to a liquid oxygen-liquid methane (LO2/CH4) economy utilizing common reactants, created from scavenging the atmosphere and land via In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Due to the very high cost of getting mass to Mars, it is critical that the destination vehicles (e.g. landers) be very mass and volume efficient.
The research will be led by UTEP's NASA-funded Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR), which is directed by Choudhuri. The total project cost is $9.3 million, which includes industry and institutional commitments of $4.3 million to continue to build an enduring aerospace research capacity at UTEP.
UTEP is one of four Hispanic-serving institutions nationwide to receive a grant under NASA's Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP). Ten total recipients were selected from 76 proposals after rigorous peer review by education and technical experts. Other HSI recipients include the University of California, Riverside; the University of California, Merced; and California State University, Los Angeles.
UTEP's cSETR has forged strategic partnerships with NASA Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Glenn Research Center, White Sands Test Facility, Lockheed Martin Corp., Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, University of Maryland and Princeton University to pursue its technical and educational goals.
"The cSETR's experienced and focused research activities in liquid oxygen-liquid methane propulsion have notably benefitted the Johnson Space Center engineering team in efforts to develop and demonstrate integrated liquid oxygen-liquid methane spacecraft solutions with relevance to human space flight," said Lauri N. Hansen, the director of engineering of NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
"We consider the UTEP cSETR to be an excellent feeder organization for our Propulsion Systems Department," Christopher E. Singer, the engineering director of NASA's George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, highlighted in his letter of endorsement. "Dr. Chourdhuri's students are regularly among the top performers we get through the co-op and intern programs, and we have been fortunate to hire several upon graduation."
cSETR will focus on training 35 undergraduate and graduate students per year in space engineering education and research to increase the number of STEM degrees awarded, especially for underrepresented groups. The cSETR team also will partner with Savannah State University and Southern Arkansas University to create a student pipeline for UTEP engineering graduate programs.
"Our relationship with NASA has been extremely beneficial to our faculty and students, and so we look forward to expanding those opportunities at a national scale with NASA and cSETR's other partners," said UTEP College of Engineering Dean Richard Schoephoerster, Ph.D. "But we also believe this will have a huge impact locally as the research is getting to the stage of commercial implementation. I anticipate significant technology transfer and spin-off companies coming out of cSETR over the next five to 10 years, which will help to support the region's interest in attracting aerospace and commercial space flight jobs."
"Over the last five years, UTEP rocket propulsion research infrastructure has grown exponentially," Choudhuri said. "This grant attests to the national preeminence of cSETR's research and education programs. There is already a significant interest to utilize this region for commercial space exploration purposes, and we are placing ourselves as the strategic lead for propulsion research capabilities in the area."
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