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Three in a Row: AE at Illinois Teams Take First, Second in AIAA Space Design Contest


Susan Mumm, Aerospace Engineering at Illinois Media Specialist

Continuing what’s become a tradition of success, Aerospace Engineering at Illinois teams have taken first and second place in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Foundation Undergraduate Team Space Transportation Design Contest.

This makes the fourth year in a row that AE has come in first in the national competition, and the third in a row AE teams have taken the top two places.

The course instructor, Prof. David Carroll, commented, “The tradition of success of the Illinois teams can be largely attributed to my predecessor instructors who created a superb course structure to follow, and the teaching assistants who interact so diligently with the students every year. And, of course, the students themselves earn the awards because they pour their heart and soul into creating their designs while incorporating our critiques (sometimes brutal with lots of red ink!) throughout the two-semester course.”

A-LOFT Team's mission profile executive summary
A-LOFT Team's mission profile executive summary
A-LOFT Team's mission profile executive summary
The 2013-14 competition asked teams to develop an Air-Launched Vehicle capable of delivering 5,000 pounds of payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The orbital vehicle needed to be launched from an existing military or commercial aircraft or a credible modification thereof. Launch altitude, velocity, and attitude, as well as the number of stages and propulsion system for each stage of the launch vehicle, were to be selected in an initial trade study with justification given for the selected design.

The first-place A-LOFT Team, with AE undergraduate Dayne Rogers of Rockford, Illinois, as Lead Systems Engineer, designed the Mako Launch System. “The Mako vehicle, named for the shortfin mako shark, consists of a two-stage rocket mounted atop a modified Boeing 747-400F carrier aircraft,” according to A-LOFT’s proposal. “A solid ammonium perchlorate composite propellant (APCP) motor designed by A-LOFT powers the winged first stage, which is designed for oceanic recovery and reuse. Cryogenic liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX) fuel the Vinci engine on the expendable second stage, which performs payload orbit insertion prior to re-entry. With design, development, integration, test, and evaluation from 2015 to 2019, the Mako vehicle can fly payloads through at least 2039 at $44 million per flight.”

A-LOFT graphihcs
A-LOFT graphihcs
A-LOFT graphihcs
Said Rogers, “Our design approach was to meet the mission requirements with a vehicle that was reasonable to develop, manufacture, and fly, with as many technologically and economically feasible design elements as possible.”

In addition to Rogers, A-LOFT Team members were:

  • Jason Allen of Arlington Heights, Illinois, Structural Engineer
  • Jobin Kokkat of Chatham, Illinois, Propulsion Engineer
  • Julia Liu of Mounds View, Minnesota, Orbital and Trajectory Engineer
  • Timothy Lanham of Wood River, Illinois, Power and Thermal Engineer
  • Stanley Chan of Solon, Ohio, Control and Communications System Engineer
  • Tucker Gritton of Moline, Illinois, Air Vehicle and Ground Base Engineer
  • Clayton Summers of Mount Carmel, Illinois, a freshman, joined the team in the Spring semester as part of AE 199S, and assisted with producing orbital and propulsion system models

Aether Team
Aether Team
Aether Team
The second-place Aether Team also designed a two-stage vehicle to deliver the payload, said Rosemary Chapple of Fults, Illinois, Lead Systems Engineer for Aether. The team’s plan was for a large delta-winged vehicle to be mounted on a Boeing 747-8F, and to detach from the plane using a glide maneuver. “Unique to our design, a turborocket, air-breathing engine can carry the launch vehicle to approximately 100,000 feet, after which the first stage autonomously flies back to Earth,” Chapple said. “For a final launch cost of $30 million the Aether Air Launch Vehicle uses safety, autonomy, and recoverability to remain economic.

“After the completion of this senior design project our team members have continued to contribute to aerospace applications by working for major companies like Boeing, NASA, and SpaceX, or remained at the university as students in the doctoral, masters, and undergraduate aerospace programs,” Chapple continued.

Other Aether Team members were:

  • Matt Dempsey, Orland Park, Illinois, Propulsion Engineer
  • Kailey Draves, Woodstock, Illinois, Orbital Trajectory Engineer
  • Brian Duckmann, Des Plaines, Illinois, Guidance, Navigation & Controls Engineer
  • Lorena Jaimes, Oakwood Hills, Illinois, Launch Vehicle and Ground Operations Engineer
  • Javier Puig Navarro, Urbana, Illinois, Structural Engineer
  • Je Won Hong, Seongnam, South Korea, Power and Thermal Engineer

Air-launched orbital vehicles continue to hold promise because of their reduced launch cost and improved access to space. Pegasus, built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, is currently the only orbital air-launched system in operation. Other air-launched orbital systems, such as Stratolaunch and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-sponsored ALASA program, are in development. Similar systems were also the subject of Horizontal Launch Study that DARPA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration published in 2011.

Teams competing were asked to demonstrate advantages of their air-launched system over ground/sea-based systems with comparable payload capability in terms of launch vehicle size, launch flexibility, launch site requirements, cost, operability, etc. Design teams also needed to identify and address any risks and challenges unique to the proposed system.

The design solution was required to focus on the orbital vehicle and interface with the carrier aircraft, as well as propulsion systems, propellant tanks and feed lines, control systems, primary structure, thermal control systems, power systems, and vehicle health monitoring systems.