Reaching for the Stars: UTEP, Kyutech to Build Suborbital Spacecraft

By Nadia M. Whitehead

UTEP News Service

In the next five years, The University of Texas at El Paso plans to go to space – literally.

“With you all, I want to launch WIRES X, an unmanned suborbital vehicle that will take us 100 kilometers up into space,” Koichi Yonemoto, Ph.D., of Kyushu Institute of Technology (Kyutech), told a large group of UTEP engineers during his visit to the University on July 29.

Only half an hour earlier, UTEP had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Japan’s Kyutech and officially formed a partnership that allows not only for student and faculty exchanges, but collaborative research on advancing aerospace technology.UTEP President Diana Natalicio, Ph.D. and President Morio Matsunaga, Ph.D. of Kyushu Institute of Technology (Kyutech) signed a Memorandum of Understanding to form an institutional partnership to advance aerospace technology. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceUTEP President Diana Natalicio, Ph.D. and President Morio Matsunaga, Ph.D. of Kyushu Institute of Technology (Kyutech) signed a Memorandum of Understanding to form an institutional partnership to advance aerospace technology. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

Over the past few years, Yonemoto has been developing a reusable winged rocket he hopes to launch in conjunction with UTEP from Spaceport America in Sierra, N.M. – a launch site dedicated solely to commercial space flight to take adventurous customers into space.

“Many of our students will be working on this,” said Ahsan Choudhuri, chair and professor of mechanical engineering at UTEP, who has been collaborating with Yonemoto for more than two years. “This vehicle is going to be built here at UTEP facilities and will not only serve as a technology test bed, but have other missions as well.”

By the time it is complete, WIRES X is expected to weigh 4.6 tons and reach 27 feet, and hundreds of engineering students will have had the unique opportunity to work with a very complex engineering system, including the space vehicle’s aerodynamics, navigation, guidance and propulsion systems.

“This partnership reflects our strategy to make this region a commercial space hub,” said Choudhuri, who directs the Center for Space Exploration Technology Research (cSETR) at UTEP. “There is already an interest in this region for aerospace purposes, so we are going to capitalize on this by placing ourselves as the strategic lead of capabilities for commercial space exploration activities.”

This miniature model represents the type of vehicle UTEP will ultimately help build in conjunction with Japan’s Kyutech to take customers into space. Photo courtesy of KyutechThis miniature model represents the type of vehicle UTEP will ultimately help build in conjunction with Japan’s Kyutech to take customers into space. Photo courtesy of KyutechIn addition to working with Spaceport America, the University plans to collaborate with Blue Origin, LLC, an aerospace company that plans to develop technology to enable private human access to space. The company has a launch and test facility nearby in Van Horn, Texas.

Choudhuri said that through the new partnerships he expects more students to stay in the region, rather than leave for other areas of the country after they graduate.

“The launch of this highly promising partnership at the dawn of commercial space flight demonstrates UTEP’s commitment to innovation and research and to providing our students with an education that prepares them to meet the unique challenges of the 21st century in a global context,” UTEP President Diana Natalicio said. “The partnership with Kyutech that we celebrate today will further expand our leadership in the areas of space engineering and technology research while placing UTEP and the Paso Del Norte region at the forefront of commercial space exploration and will also reinforce our commitment to provide El Paso and the surrounding region with opportunities for global competiveness.”

Kyutech is a premier Japanese university known for its world class aerospace and robotics curriculum. It specializes in satellite engineering, space debris, and the space environment, and has satellite and space vehicle development facilities.

In addition to student-faculty exchange and collaborative research, a joint graduate program in space engineering will be established.