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A "made in Quebec" rocket launcher

03 August 2021 - Source : BLOG


Before conducting its first test flight, Reaction Dynamics is testing its hybrid engine for efficacy and safety at a test site in Joliette (Photo: Reaction Dynamics)

Three years after leaving Polytechnique Montréal, Bachar Elzein is preparing for the day when Reaction Dynamics, the company he founded in 2016, will finally put its rocket launcher to the test. The trial launch will bring the startup one step closer to putting nanosatellites and microsatellites into orbit using some of the greenest technology in the industry. Here's the story of a "made in Quebec" commercial rocket.

When Bachar Elzein travelled to the U.S. to compete with Oronos, a tech company affiliated with Polytechnique Montréal, he seized the opportunity to ask representatives from major industry players like SpaceX, Boeing and NASA how he could land an internship with them.

But despite the Oronos team's achievements—including being named category winners in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 editions of the Spaceport America Cup—it was impossible for its members to get a spot with one of the big-name companies. For security reasons, these jobs were, and still are, open to US citizens only.

A boost from Polytechnique Montréal

Bachar Elzein (Photo : Reaction Dynamics)

The young entrepreneur didn't let himself get discouraged. He was determined to make a name for himself in the industry, one way or another. "Once you've seen a rocket engine up close, you don't want to work on anything else," he explained with a smile.

With this idea in mind, Bachar approached Étienne Robert, a professor in Polytechnique Montréal's Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2015. His goal was to gain a better understanding of combustion dynamics and to work on his projects in a scientific research environment.

"I couldn't have found a better opportunity," said the 31-year-old entrepreneur. "Above all else, Professor Robert is an expert in combustion, and to design a rocket engine, you first need to understand the different types of combustion instabilities and multiphase flows (Editor's note: the movement of solids, liquids and gases) like those typically found in combustion chambers."

The next year, Bachar started Reaction Dynamics while he was still working in Professor Robert's lab. He wanted to put nanosatellites and microsatellites into orbit using a launch vehicle with a payload capacity of 200 kilograms.

The company initially set up shop in the J-Armand Bombardier incubator, located in the building with the same name. The space is now home to Polytechnique Montréal's Entrepreneurship Support Service.

"We definitely gained a lot while we were there," said Bachar. "We got to rub shoulders with Montréal's entrepreneurial ecosystem and we also connected with our first investors."  
Today, Reaction Dynamics is based in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and employs roughly 20 people.

A quick look at... small satellites

Nanosatellites are small enough to hold in your hand. (Photo : NASAKennedy, under licence CC 2.0)

The miniaturization of electronic components has done more than just make smartphones and laptops lighter. Next generation satellites, which are used for remote monitoring, geolocation and even Internet connectivity, weigh only a few kilograms.

In fact, they're classed by weight—like boxers— and each category has its own prefix. There's micro (less than 100 kilograms), nano (less than 10 kilograms), and even pico (less than 1 kilogram).

In recent years, public and private companies hoping to send small satellites into space have had to be patient because today's large launchers give priority to big satellites.

Bashar believes there's a market for small launch vehicles like the one his team is developing. "We're hoping to offer what is essentially taxi service for the price of a bus ticket," he said.

Gearing up for their first test flight

Aliénor Lougerstay (Photo : Oronos Polytechnique)

The launcher that Bashar's team plans to assemble soon is quite different from SpaceX's Falcon rockets. It's much smaller and uses hybrid propulsion technology.

More specifically, Reaction Dynamics' engine uses a liquid oxidizer and a polymer-based solid fuel. This makes it a safer and greener option than its competitors' engines, according to Aliénor Lougerstay, a Polytechnique Montréal graduate who is the Chief Operations Officer at Reaction Dynamics and the outgoing General Director at Oronos.

"If you look at the various products that go into our propulsion system, our solution emits 60% less CO2 than competitor launchers sending an equivalent payload into orbit," she stated. "We're also hoping to use recycled plastic in our fuel so that we can reduce our environmental footprint and offer the first carbon-neutral launch vehicle."

Reaction Dynamics has already applied for three patents to protect its technology.

The group is now looking at conducting its first test flight in the next few months. This crucial step will help the startup demonstrate its engine capabilities in addition to its ability to guide the rocket's trajectory and manage ground operations.

"There are several critical subsystems in a rocket," said Bachar. "It's a game of compromise and optimization, with no margin for error because once the rocket is launched, there's no going back."

During the same period, the startup hopes to complete a round of financing, which will give it the means to offer commercial launch service. "Once this step is complete, we expect to carry out our first orbital flight within 2 years," said the founder of Reaction Dynamics, adding that he eventually plans to complete 4 to 6 launches per year.

Reaction Dynamics already has financial backing from outside investors and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which awarded the company a $1.5 million grant to develop the launch vehicle's combustion chamber.

À quick look at... the combustion chamber of a rocket launcher

Like its cousin launchers, Oronos' Prometheus rocket featured a hybrid engine (Photo : Oronos Polytechnique)

To stay in orbit around the Earth, nanosatellites and microsatellites need to be released at a minimum altitude of 250 kilometres. That's 2.5 times farther than the distances travelled by Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson in their brief journeys into space.

To reach these heights, launchers are equipped with powerful engines that channel the energy that's released when you combine fuel, an oxidizing agent and an ignition source.

In a conventional automobile or aircraft engine, oxygen in the air acts as the oxidizer. But since gaseous oxygen is scarce several dozen kilometres into the sky, you can't rely on it to power a rocket engine.

That's why an oxidizing agent is included in the rocket, along with its fuel. A number of different combinations are possible. In a liquid propulsion engine, the oxidizer and fuel are combined in the combustion chamber while in a liquid state. This option offers efficient combustion, but it's also complex and risky. Solid-propellant engines are simpler, but they also pose safety risks. They contain a mix of solid-state fuel and oxidizer.

Like the latest Oronos launchers, Reaction Dynamics' launch vehicle is powered by a hybrid engine in which the fuel (a solid polymer) is mixed with a liquid oxidizer that's injected into the combustion chamber.

According to Aliénor, the advantage of this type of engine is that it's as safe as solid-propellant engines while offering the thrust control of liquid-propellant engines.

Oronos also chose to use this type of engine for its launchers in the past, with input from Bachar Elzein. In June 2019, the tech company was celebrated once again, this time by winning first place in the 10,000-foot (3-kilometre) launch category at the Spaceport America Cup, the largest competition of its kind on the planet. The group now plans to join the big leagues and is preparing a launcher capable of climbing to 30,000 feet (9 kilometres). This would be an unprecedented achievement, as the competition record is approximately 17,000 feet.

Learn more

Reaction Dynamics' website
TedX Talk by Bachar Elzein about rocket launchers
Oronos' website
Professeur Étienne Robert expertise
Department of Mechanical Engineering's website



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