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Durham University News

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Durham University physics student finds it is rocket science after research win

(1 March 2013)

Paul Clark and Ioana Ciuca

Paul Clark and Ioana Ciuca

A first year Durham University physics student is celebrating after her project to study laser welding in space was chosen by the Swedish National Space Board (SNSB) and European Space Agency (ESA).

This means that Ioana Ciuca – and students from the Polytechnic University of Bucharest in Romania – will get to put their project on the REXUS (Rocket-borne Experiments for University Students) rocket next year.

The project, to study the laser welding of metals in micro gravity, was chosen by a panel of experts at the ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands.

Ioana, aged 19, who came to Durham because her passion for cosmology led her to seek out the best teaching in the discipline available at a European university, has just attended a week’s training course for the mission at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Oberpfaffenhofen.

Paul Clark, from the Centre for Advanced Instrumentation – part of the Department of Physics – said Ioana and her fellow undergraduate colleagues beat off competition from physics students with far more experience.

“This is an outstanding achievement since most REXUS projects are submitted by postgraduate and post-doctoral students. Ioana is the only first year student among the successful project teams.

“At the project selection event, the panel from DLR, SNSB and ESA praised the team for their professionalism and enthusiasm – especially since they are at such an early point in their careers.

“I have been making instrumentation for international observatories for 15 years – Ioana’s team is taking on the same level of project in their first years at University. It is remarkable,” added Mr Clark.

As mankind establishes a foothold in space with the construction of the International Space Station, it is essential to establish how the properties of materials can change in micro gravity. Ioana’s team are particularly interested in how the welding of strong, lightweight materials such as titanium alloys changes if they are welded in free-fall rather than under Earth’s gravity.

Ioana, who comes from near Bucharest in Romania, said: “It is fantastic to be able to study physics in beautiful Durham. The University has an excellent international reputation and it is wonderful to be here.

“I am grateful that the staff have been very supportive of our REXUS project too.”

The REXUS programme allows students from universities and higher education colleges across Europe to carry out scientific and technological experiments on research rockets.

These rockets, sometimes known as sounding rockets, are instrument-carrying rockets designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments during their sub-orbital flights.

The experiments are launched on an unguided, spin-stabilised rocket powered by an improved Orion Motor with 290 kg of solid propellant. It is capable of taking 40kg of student experiment modules to an altitude of approximately 90km. The rockets have a length of approximately 5.6m and a diameter of 35cm.

Each year, the REXUS programme launches two rockets carrying up to a dozen experiments designed and built by student teams. The idea is to give them a taste of experimentation in aerospace technology, project teamwork and management.

The launches take place from SSC’s Esrange Space Centre in northern Sweden. A parallel programme, BEXUS, is a stratospheric research balloon programme.

The REXUS/BEXUS programme is realised under a bilateral Agency Agreement between the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and the Swedish National Space Board (SNSB). The Swedish share of the payload has been made available to students from other European countries through a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).

EuroLaunch, a cooperation between the Esrange Space Centre of SSC and the Mobile Rocket Base (MORABA) of DLR, is responsible for the campaign management and operations of the launch vehicles. Experts from ESA, SSC and DLR provide technical support to the student teams throughout the project.

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