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Rocket testing in Durango?

Lab near airport simulates launch and in-space operations

For the past six years, a remote area of La Plata County has been the playing field for rocket science.

Advanced Mobile Propulsion Test (AMPT) set up shop in 2009 on a 2-acre plot of flatland leased from the Durango-La Plata County Airport, and now the team is looking to expand.

AMPT headquarters is in Durango, with other test facilities established in Southwest Colorado and Southern California. President and Chief Engineer Daudi Barnes began consulting as an engine-development engineer years ago, but whenever he needed to test models, he had to travel to the Mojave Desert or Las Cruces, New Mexico. Seeing an overwhelming need within the engine-development market for a modular test facility, AMPT became the only operation of its kind in the region.

The flat terrain, lack of competition and a personal draw to Southwest Colorado made the county property appealing to Barnes. Last week, the organization opened the gates for its first open house since business began in 2009, allowing some local government, community and business leaders a glimpse of what rocket testing looks like.

Located just off County Road 309A, a small clutter of white mobile trailers are set up in a field, with aircraft on the adjacent airport’s runway within sight. A test cell built to accommodate up to 5,000 pounds sits among the trailers.

“What this offers is a one-stop shop for all rocket engine testing,” said AMPT vice president Christian Barnes (no relation to Daudi Barnes). “We can simulate the environmental conditions.”

The company is tasked with providing test data for the development of hypergolic – meaning their propellant ignites spontaneously upon contact – engines. The vast majority of engines that come through AMPT are for in-space propulsion, be it for missile defense or commercial launch. AMPT’s team of approximately 14 works with NASA and original equipment manufacturers, providing their customers with test data to supplement their existing research. AMPT is a customer-funded facility which budgets an estimated $1.5 million in yearly operating costs. Though AMPT declined to disclose a salary range for its employees, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median annual salary for an aerospace engineer was around $103,000 in 2013.

This past spring, the company completed a testing cycle with one of its customers, which took a lengthy three years.

“The requirements of operating are tight and well-defined,” Christian Barnes said. “That puts rigorous regulations on the process.”

Perhaps disappointingly, AMPT does not literally launch any of its models. Instead, the test cell is a vehicle capable of simulating all launch and in-space operation phases. The operation can take about 350 different measurements, including up to 140,000 feet in altitude and extract data on chamber pressure, acceleration and thrust, or the force that propels the rocket.

What is unique about AMPT is that unlike other facilities that use generators, the AMPT team utilizes a significantly more efficient vacuum system for the test cell that can be turned off and on in 10 seconds. The largest engine tested at the site weighed 700 pounds, Daudi Barnes said.

Though a simulation can take hours of preparation, the “launch” itself can last for mere seconds.

“It takes several hours to get the propellants loaded and ready to go,” Daudi Barnes said. “There’s an instrument test, or pre-test, and the test sequence in the control center. The test may only last seconds.”

In addition to the launch station, the facility has a control room equipped with a monitor that allows the team to remotely get an up-close view of the test cell. There is also a lab for engine decontamination and assembly. Filtered air flows into this room to ensure the components of the engine remain pristine.

All labs at the facility are mobile for flexibility purposes, so if a customer wishes to test out of state, AMPT can relocate.

The organization has fostered close relationships within the community over the years. A local sheet metal company supplied material for some of AMPT’s equipment. The organization also works closely with Fort Lewis College students and employees. William Nollet, an assistant professor of physics and engineering at FLC, is also an AMPT propulsion scientist directing research on rocket testing and propulsion. AMPT offers FLC students an opportunity to fulfill senior design projects by having the students solve engineering problems and develop their own systems.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have resources here and support from the local community,” Daudi Barnes said.

AMPT is now hoping to expand in coming years by adding another test cell and building a safety shower for the team.

jpace@durangoherald.com

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