College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Propelling Africa’s Rocket Systems Forward

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UKZN’s Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG) in the School of Engineering is developing the talent of the next generation of rocket scientists to drive South Africa’s space industry forward.

Master’s candidate Mr Thabang Mdhluli, from the village of Phiring in the Limpopo Province, is one of those furthering the ASReG’s mission through his research on developing an injector test rig for gel propellants, supported by a bursary from the Department of Science and Innovation. The rig will be used to visualise and quantify the flow characteristics of several gelled propellant analogues, important work as gel propellants are increasingly being applied to rocket and ramjet propulsion systems and offer advantages over conventional liquid and solid fuel variants.

Mdhluli said gelled propellants will enhance the performance of future propulsion systems and provide improved handling and storage safety. His work will assist in generating useful quantitative and qualitative data to facilitate an optimum injector design for a flight vehicle using gel propellants.

An early fascination with the workings of vehicle engines was helped along by an introduction to the fundamentals and principles of mechanical engineering through his diesel mechanic brother’s textbooks. Taking engineering graphics and design as a subject in high school further developed Mdhluli’s interest in mechanical engineering.

While Mdhluli acknowledges that the intensive mathematics necessary for engineering makes it daunting, he finds its principles straightforward; although it requires higher order thinking and retention and understanding of intricate concepts and ideas, translating the science into engineering and producing designs is where the challenge ultimately lies.

Aiming for a career where he could work through the engineering process from design to development and assembly, Mdhluli enrolled for a degree in mechanical engineering at UKZN. His interest in rocket science and propulsion systems was stimulated in his second year on meeting postgraduate students in ASReG who were presenting one of the Phoenix sounding rockets at the annual Mechanical Engineering Open Day. This led to him enrolling for a master’s with the group after completing his undergraduate degree in the minimum time with four certificates of merit.

His final year group design project involved designing a pressure vessel for a water rocket demonstration kit for use in explaining rocketry principles to high school learners and encouraging an interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This work was supported by the Department of Science and Innovation.

Mdhluli advised high school students interested in rocket science to work hard at their STEM subjects and to try and gain an understanding of the applications of their work while also seeking more information about the industry and participating in as many additional engineering education programmes as possible.

The work he put in over his four-year degree has been a source of pride to his family, and the demanding course with its considerable workload required focused commitment, discipline and strict time management from Mdhluli, a keen rugby player who spends time on the pitch to balance his physical and academic activities.

‘The ASReG helped me to see that conducting research on aerospace systems, while it seemed farfetched, was attainable,’ said Mdhluli. ‘I hope that the work we do will one day add South Africa to the list of countries excelling in space activities and help it develop its own launch capability.’

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied