Rocket research at UT Austin aims to prevent catastrophes

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A burst of flames could be seen for miles Tuesday night in Virginia, after an unmanned rocket exploded seconds after lift-off. Scenes like this remind us how risky space research can be. Testing being done at the University of Texas at Austin aims to prevent these accidents from happening.

“I think people forget how complicated these systems still are,” says UT Professor Charles Tinney. “There’s a lot that goes into that.”

Professor Tinney explains that igniting a rocket engine is like trying to control a massive explosion. The environment that these engines produce on the launch pad are violent enough to destroy the vehicle, payload and crew. Factors of the environment include temperatures, pressure and even sound waves. The space vehicle must be designed in a way that can handle this kind of punishment during launch.

“A lot of the work we do here is to better understand what those environments are that occur on that launch pad, so we can prevent explosions or unnecessary accidents from happening,” said Tinney.

The team uses an echo-free rocket test facility to study realistic conditions of a launch pad. They’ve replicated NASA’s RS-25 rocket engine.

“This is NASA’s most powerful rocket to date,” said Tinney, “And we’re doing testing on that with this scaled replica, to understand what those loads are that form on the launch pad during the ignition process.”

As students learn more about the science of engine sound, they’ll be able to develop methods for reducing the noise and its destructiveness. Engineers also hope to develop less bulky rocket designs that can withstand forces that come from turning on the engine.

“I don’t know if there will ever be a day when these systems are completely safe, so to speak, but as long as you develop an arsenal of information over time, eventually these systems can become safer and safer.”

The team will continue their exploration for answers, in hopes that devastating scenes like that in Virginia, will become a thing of the past. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Users who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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