Space Concordia Concludes Key Cryogenic Test

Space Concordia has begun cryogenic flow testing. Image credit: Space Concordia.

Space Concordia is a student rocketry club from Concordia University with the aim of doing something that no other students have accomplished: sending a student-built, liquid-fueled rocket past the 100 km “Kármán line” where space begins.

After the successful conclusion of a critical cryogenic fueling test, the team and its leaders are already looking towards when and where they’ll be making their launch attempt. 

Students and space

Student rocketry is familiar to both space enthusiasts and to SpaceQ readers, as they’ve become an ascendant fixture on the space scene in both Canada and elsewhere. Students regularly launch both off-the-shelf rockets and ones that they’ve designed and built themselves, learning more about space and building the skillsets they need to join governmental and private-sector launch organizations.  

The Canadian student rocketry scene started small, but has been growing rapidly, with the successful and growing Launch Canada Competition giving both newcomer and advanced rocketry students the chance to design, build, test, and launch rockets and rocket components. 

Yet for all that, students have rarely (if ever) actually reached space. Many successfully launch into the atmosphere, and even the stratosphere, but not to the “Kármán line” 100 km above sea level that the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) designates as the point where outer space begins. And of those few that may have reached that line—according to Space Concordia’s Oleg Khaliminonov it’s a contentious topic—none have done it with a propulsion system that uses liquid propellants. 

That may change very soon.

Space Concordia

Space Concordia is looking to be first to breach the Kármán line. They have designed and built a working engine, the Starsailor rocket, and are in the process of testing both to make sure they’re good to go. In an interview with SpaceQ, three Space Concordia representatives laid out where they’re at and where they’re going: Khalimonov, who was part of the project since its inception in 2017; safety lead Nathan McDonald-Fortier; and engineering lead Henri Takahashi-Massicotte.

As mentioned in previous SpaceQ coverage, they were originally competing as part of the Base11 challenge to get a student rocket to the Kármán line. The challenge began back in 2018, and the University of Concordia team was one of the leading competitors. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, however, the contest was disrupted, and it ultimately ended without a winner.  Khaliminonov said that they expected to get it done quickly, that “we were so capable and ingenious that we could get it done in a year and half…and now here we are,” in 2024. 

Yet Khaliminonov said that “I regret nothing,” pointing to what they’ve already accomplished. Space Concordia has managed to design and build what he called “one of the most powerful… [and] advanced rocket propulsion systems ever built in the country,” capable of over 37 kilonewtons of thrust. They’ve also built one of its largest-ever rockets, comparable in size to Canada’s famous Black Brant suborbital rockets. The Starsailor is an incredibly difficult and complex machine to build, and one that can’t be rushed. 

Khalimonov added that what’s most notable is that “this is completely built [and] designed by students.” Both McDonald-Fortier and Takahashi-Massicotte are current Concordia students; and while Khalimonov graduated to a Program Lead role at the university, he mostly works as a contact between the students and the university on the project. McDonald-Fortier said that “all of the design decisions were made by students the whole way through.” 

Almost all manufacturing for the rocket, the engine, the test stand and the launch tower were also done by students; while they do have a number of valued partners providing materials and some components, the students are the ones manufacturing most of the components out of those materials, altering the donated components, and assembling them together. Much of the work is done in Concordia’s Engineering Design and Manufacturing Lab, though McDonald-Fortier said that work was also done by outside welding students. Either way, it is very much a student-built rocket.

Even the flight computer, McDonald-Fortier said, was “completely designed in-house” by students over the last two to three years. “We made the PCBs and wired it all up” he said, “and that’s what we use for testing now; we work off of that computer.” This is notable and perhaps even unusual in an era where most launch companies focus on repurposing off-the-shelf components for use in space; but Khalimonov maintained that it helps them achieve their goals despite their low budget. 

In this latest test, we utilized cryogenic liquid nitrogen as a propellant, allowing us to validate our designs compatibility with cryogenic liquid oxygen, and advancing our understanding of the rocket's performance in extreme conditions. The cryogenic valves, and flight computers were able to function nominally, even after being subjected to constant freezing rain. Image credit: Space Concordia.
In this latest test, we utilized cryogenic liquid nitrogen as a propellant, allowing us to validate our designs compatibility with cryogenic liquid oxygen, and advancing our understanding of the rocket’s performance in extreme conditions. The cryogenic valves, and flight computers were able to function nominally, even after being subjected to constant freezing rain. Image credit: Space Concordia.

Cryogenic flow test

The students explained that the recently-concluded test was a “cryogenic flow test.” The engine for Starsailor uses a mix of liquid oxygen and “Jet A” kerosene fuel. While Jet A is comparatively stable and nonflammable, liquid oxygen needs to be kept at cryogenic temperatures, as it has a boiling point of -183 degrees Celsius. McDonald-Fortier said that creates a lot of “interesting problems”: not only does liquid oxygen tend to leak—leaked oxygen is tremendously hazardous—but the cryogenic temperatures can change the size of pipes, tubing, tanks, and even the rocket itself. 

It also makes ignition “a particularly tricky business,” according to McDonald-Fortier. Before the rocket engine lights, every moment that the propellants are flowing into the chamber without being lit makes it ever more likely that ignition results in an explosion colloquially called a “hard start.” While he couldn’t go into all the details, he said that they needed to iterate a number of times on the design of the engine, the tubing and tanks, and even of their igniter. 

So in order to ensure that the “tricky business” works properly, they needed to test the flow of the cryogenic liquid oxygen. While they’d done “dozens and dozens of cold flow and cryogenic flow tests on our trailer,” he said, they hadn’t done the tests on Starsailor itself and its launch tower. So they raised Starsailor, connected it to the tower (nicknamed “Big Ben”), and filled it with liquid nitrogen and a freezing-resistant fuel substitute. Then, he said, they “open all the valves [and] pretend like we’re firing it for real,” albeit without ignition. 

Since, as McDonald-Fortier explained, “every step of the process we do to do this is the exact same steps we’ll take when we actually launch the vehicle,” this test gave them the information they needed to understand how the fluids will act during an actual launch, and to anticipate the sort of issues that might arise.  

The test wasn’t easy. McDonald-Fortier said that “we were out there in the [freezing] rain for seven days to get this done.” He also said that they had “tons of small issues everywhere,” like fixing loose wiring, correctly estimating the amount of liquid oxygen that would actually be needed to both chill the tank and fill it up, and dealing with umbilical connectors that wouldn’t disconnect properly due to the cryo-cooled StarSailor slightly shrinking in size compared to the launch tower. 

Still, they consider the test a success, and believe they learned a lot. They’re now working out the optimal flow rates based on the data they’ve received, are iterating on some of their technology and processes, and look forward to the subsequent cryogenic flow tests that are scheduled for sometime in May.  

Where and when will Starsailor launch?

Assuming the future cryogenic flow tests go well, they’ll start testing other components, like the student-made flight computer and telemetry solutions. Then, during the summer, they’re hoping to do a full-duration burn of the finalized engine. McDonald-Fortier said that “there will likely be hangups” that will mean more testing, but if the testing goes well, they may well be “effectively very close to [having] done all of our qualification testing for actually launching the vehicle.”  

They aren’t sure when the actual launch attempt will happen, but McDonald-Fortier said that if testing goes well, it may happen some time at the end of this year, or early in 2025. 

That raises the question of where they’ll be launching. That question still doesn’t have an answer yet. In previous interviews, Khaliminonov had said that they were interested in launching from Churchill, Manitoba, out of the same Churchill Rocket Research Range that the Black Brant rockets were launched from decades ago. That still may be the case, but they are also exploring other possibilities, like launching from Maritime Launch Services’ Spaceport Nova Scotia near Canso, NS. 

In this interview, Khaliminonov said that there were a variety of different factors that come into play. MLS is definitely closer, “only a 13 hour drive” he said, and it’s easily accessible by road. But MLS is also comparatively closer to populated areas, and that may well be a concern. In order to ensure the rocket lands somewhere over the water, regulators may require them to launch at “a more aggressive angle,” he said, and to use less fuel. That could mean that their attempt won’t reach the Kármán line. 

Churchill is nearly the opposite situation. It’s much farther away, and much harder to get to. But because it’s so remote, it’s comparatively unpopulated, so it’s more likely that regulators will allow them to be more ambitious in their angle and use of fuel, making it more likely that they’ll hit their target. And if they don’t, Churchill carries another advantage: since it’s over land, it’s very likely they’ll be able to retrieve some or all of the rocket in order to learn why they failed. 

The discussions with both regulators and other stakeholders are still ongoing. Either way, though, they hope that this will open up new possibilities for Canada and for academic research. If Starsailor is a success, it will provide Canada with new capabilities that it hadn’t had before; a liquid-fueled rocket that can demonstrably get to space, and perhaps someday get to orbit. In turn, since Space Concordia (as of yet) has no intention of spinning this off into a private-sector space launch company, this would mean that a Canadian academic institution and its students have an honest-to-goodness space program. 

This could open up new possibilities for students and academics at other universities to perform space-based research without relying on either for-profit launch companies or on governmental space programs.

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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