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UK Space Propulsion Competition fuels innovative new concepts

A piezoelectric pyro valve, a piston pump, and a method of measuring electric propulsion plasma temperatures, win top prizes
Last week 13 finalists in the UK Space Propulsion Competition gathered at the Imperial War Museum to present their concepts for innovations in space propulsion systems.  The competition was launched back in October 2014 by the UK Space Propulsion Working group, whose aim is to increase the UK’s competitiveness in delivering space propulsion systems to the global market.

Oliver Lane, Propulsion Team Leader at SSTL, chaired the group in 2014 and used the opportunity to launch the competition.

"In a range of industries across the world, competitions are being used to kick-start innovation and bring in fresh ideas." Oliver says. "As a group we were keen to see what would happen if we opened our toughest space propulsion challenges up to a wider audience".

The competition was unusual in that it pitted individuals and students against SMEs and research institutes, and this diverse set of talented innovators came up with a wide range of interesting and potentially ground-breaking concepts.  


The UK Space Agency offered an exploratory ideas grant of £10,000 as the first prize, Airbus Defence and Space contributed £7,500 as the second prize with SSTL funding £5,000 for third place.

And the winners are…

L-R: Bill Bentall (Airbus Defence & Space), Anthony Haynes (Reaction Engines), Mark Ford (ESA), Sam Hyde (1st Prize winner), David Hemsley (2nd Prize winner), Dr Charlie Ryan (2nd Prize winner), Linas Karaveckas (3rd Prize winner), Rob Scott (Scottspace Ltd), Dave Gibbon (SSTL)

First Prize went to Sam Hyde and Valdis Krumins of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre for their design for a pyro valve replacement.  Almost every space propulsion system includes a number of explosively activated safety valves that close off the main fuel supplies during launch or at the end of the launch phase.  These safety valves traditionally use explosives which means that they are dangerous to assemble and impossible to test prior to launch. AMRC’s concept uses a spring and a piezoelectric release mechanism to solve some of these problems.

Want to know more?  Have a look at their winning pitch AMRC Propulsion Valve Replacement.

"It's a very promising concept with wide ranging implications.  It's fantastic to see a fresh approach to the problem and we all eagerly await the prototype" said Mark Ford on behalf of the judges.

Sam Hyde commented "This is a great result for our team.  So far most of our work has been in aircraft and aero engines, so it's really exciting to build a relationship with the space industry and bring our skills to bear in solving fresh problems".
Second place went to a combined entry from Oxford based Oxsensis and Dr Charlie Ryan from the Surrey Space Centre. Their proposal was to expand on technology that Oxsensis has developed for measuring temperature and pressure in aircraft engines.

"We're delighted to be given this award and it will allow us to team up with Surrey to trial a proof of concept of this exciting technique" said David Hemsley of Oxsensis.

Bill Bental, speaking on behalf of the judging panel commented "Not only will this solve the challenge of how to measure plasma temperatures in electric thrusters, but it has huge implications for the development of new launcher engines too.”

Want to know more?  Have a look at the Oxensis/SSC pitch High temperature measurement in remote, confined spaces

Third place went to Linas Karaveckas, a PhD student at Kingston University, for his piston pump proposal. "Using a piston pump instead of a turbopump should offer significant cost savings for a small satellite launcher" said Linas. "With the prize money I will now be able to build a prototype pump to support my research".

“We were considering having a separate prize for student entries” said Dave Gibbon as he presented the award, “but Linas’ pitch was worthy of this prize on its own merit, so he should be especially proud to have won this award.”

Want to know more?  Have a look at Linas’ pitch Low-cost rocket pressurisation system

Although there could only be three winners, the standard of entries was very high and at least two non-prize winning entrants have already formed new research projects to develop their concepts.

A number of students and academics presented at the event;  Ciara McGarth travelled from Glasgow to pitch the integrated rocket design tools which her team at Strathclyde had developed with Tranquility Aerospace, and Geriant Morgan from the Open University pitched a new valve concept that had already flown as an experiment on Rosetta’s Philae lander.

Several independent ideas made it through into the finals including Dean Swift from the London Hackspace with his ideas for tessellation optimisation for laser cut panels, and Robin Hauge's new rocket engine architecture which offers radically reduced costs by allowing aluminium to be used instead of exotic high temperature alloys.

From industry there were entries from several SMEs who don't currently supply space propulsion components – a great result for the competition in encouraging new entrants to the space industry market. From the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, came two innovative concepts; a propellant tank with integrated flow management system that could be printed in a single piece and a piezo actuated valve that could replace pyrotechnic charges currently used in spacecraft safety systems – a concept which went on to win First Prize.

And where next for space propulsion in the UK?

"We took a bit of a gamble in holding this competition" said Oliver Lane "but it has brought out a wealth of new ideas from all over the country. It's heartening to see such inventiveness and bodes very well for the UK space industry that we've found a way to tap into more innovative minds.  Will there be another competition next year?  I certainly hope so!"





24 March 20150 Comments1 Comment

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