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UKZN Launches Aerospace Systems Research Institute

Seen at the launch is UKZN’s ASRI team with members of University management, guests and academics from the Discipline of Mechanical Engineering.

UKZN Launches Aerospace Systems Research Institute

UKZN made history recently when it officially launched the Aerospace Systems Research Institute (ASRI) – one of the largest aerospace research groups in South Africa during an event held on the Howard College campus in Durban.

ASRI, situated in the Discipline of Mechanical Engineering, was established by the University Council in 2022 following its predecessor, the Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG), established in 2009.

ASRI focuses on the design, development and testing of aerospace propulsion and flight systems, including rocket engines, turbopumps and turbomachinery, suborbital and orbital (space) launch vehicles and novel propellants.

The launch, held as part of a series of week-long events, shared ASRI’s vision with the audience while showcasing the Institute’s past and current activities as well as upcoming projects.

ASRI’s founding Director and associate professor in the Mechanical Engineering Discipline Professor Michael Brooks thanked the University for its unwavering support and recognition in getting the Institute into a properly configured shape to deliver aerospace technologies for commercialisation. ‘You backed us and we assure you of our determination to succeed,’ said Brooks. He also thanked the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) for their funding and wisdom, and other partners for their support provided to the team.

In his presentation, titled: From ASReG to ASRI – Lessons Learnt Along the Way, Brooks gave a brief history of rocket science, saying current space companies are driven by agile business models, fast innovative techniques, aggressive timelines and a fearless, innovative approach. ‘This whole new space concept is the era in which ASRI was born and it’s the environment in which we must compete if we are going to survive.’ Brooks said ASRI aspired to be a global centre of excellence in aerospace propulsion and supported the country’s space engineering economy.

Among those attending were representatives from DSI, the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Space Command, University executive management, UKZN’s Chair of Council, Ms Khomotso Mthimunye, industry partners, government officials, industry partners, representatives from other universities, space agencies, academics, students and the ASRI team.

UKZN Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Nana Poku said the launch was a joyous occasion for the University and a chance to demonstrate the excellence and great work taking place at the Institution. ‘One of the fundamental messages this occasion projects is the tenacity of perseverance over the environment. To be one of the few universities in the world to launch a rocket, and within the context that we exist in, to be the only one in the world like us to do it is a tremendous achievement by the team.’

He said through the launch, the University was trying to stretch the essence of its impact. He commended the work done by the team in the communities to enthuse the next generation of scientists and the energy they brought to reviving science at UKZN.

Congratulating the University, DSI’s Mr Kaizer Moroka said he was impressed that UKZN was behind this project and outlined the funding given to the Institute for the next three years while pleading with ASRI and the University to do this work not only for the country but for the whole continent. Moroka said capacity building should not happen only at UKZN but also entice and promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in schools and transform the sector.

SANSA’s Chief Executive Officer Mr Humbulani Mudau said the launch was a celebration of yet another major leap forward in bringing the SANSA programme to life.

‘The launch of the Aerospace Systems Research Institute was nothing short of spectacular, showcasing the incredible strides we’re making towards fulfilling our nation’s dedication to conquering every aspect of the space domain,’ said Mudau. ‘This isn’t just about sending rockets into the sky; it’s about crafting our own destiny among the stars! We’re pouring our hearts and minds into building up our sovereign strength and strategic prowess, ensuring that we’re not just spectators, but active players in the cosmic game.’

ASRI engineers Mr Celimpilo Damane and Dr Sarisha Harrylal said they were grateful for the opportunity to be part of the team.

Mtubatuba-born Damane said his love for rockets and a desire to know more led him to Mechanical Engineering and the ASRI team. He said among the most impressive highlights was the opportunity to give back and being part of the schools’ outreach projects of seeing youngsters interested and fascinated by science.

After graduating with an MBChB, Harrylal wanted to fulfil her dream of becoming a mechanical engineer so she joined the Discipline and later the ASRI team. The only female member, she said her colleagues had been very supportive and everyone was treated equally. As a member of the STEM MentHER programme, Harrylal said she would like to see more female students joining the team.

In a partnership with Dr Kathy Arbuckle of the School of Arts, ASRI unveiled the top four space-inspired animal artworks chosen. These were designed by the School’s Mr Sphelele Zungu and Mr Jared Maistry. Arbuckle said it was exciting to be part of the initiative. ‘This bodes well for work between the Arts and the Sciences. We are adding “steam” to the STEM.’

Dean of Engineering, Professor Glen Bright thanked all the guests for their presence and for making the event a success as well as Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Professor Mosa Moshabela for welcoming the guests; Professor Alan Matthews for directing the evening’s programme; Professor Chats Devroop for the musical entertainment; and the organising team from the College.

Words: Sithembile Shabangu

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini