FEEL GOOD | UKZN team breaks African rocket altitude record

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The Phoenix MkIIr launch that took place on Monday
The Phoenix MkIIr launch that took place on Monday
  • A rocket test flight by the UKZN Aerospace Systems Research Group has broken an African record for altitude.
  • While the world record stood at a whopping 10.3km, the UKZN rocket smashed this, rising to nearly 18 km.
  • This type of rocket testing plays a crucial role in the facilitation of experiments conducted in a wide variety of scientific disciplines.

A rocket test flight by a University of KwaZulu-Natal Aerospace Systems Research Group has been dubbed a resounding success after beating an African record for hybrid rocket altitude.

The flight commenced after a brief reprieve in weather which provided suitable launch conditions. KZN's much-anticipated Phoenix hybrid rocket test flight was held at the Denel Overberg Test Range in the Western Cape on Monday, the university said.

The Phoenix-1B Mk IIr vehicle soared to a new high-altitude mark for hybrid rockets, beating the previous African record of 10.3 km by over 7 km.

"The team is delighted to see all of their hard work come to fruition with a picture-perfect flight, which exceeded our expectations," said Dr Jean Pitot, the leader of UKZN's Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG).  

Pitot said it was a relief that the launch was a success.

"This launch is the culmination of months of preparation. We had to move an entire rocket team, its launch platform, two rockets, multiple back-up parts, computer equipment and everything that goes with it 1 700 km across the country. It was a massive undertaking, but the work has paid off."

What exactly is the project?

ASReG's Phoenix Hybrid Rocket Programme is a skills development initiative that focuses on suborbital launch vehicle design and testing.

"Internationally, sounding (or research) rockets continue to play a crucial role in the facilitation of experiments conducted in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including bio-technology, astronomy, astrophysics, materials science and meteorology, among many others," said academic leader for mechanical engineering at UKZN, Professor Michael Brooks.

He added: "They also serve as valuable test platforms for aerospace technologies related to commercial satellite launch vehicles."

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The Phoenix-Mk IIr suborbital rocket that was successfully tested was developed as a technology demonstration platform. 

The launch and smashing an African record

After signing the fins pre-launch - a tradition in rocketry research - the team retreated to a mission control blockhouse from where the nerve-wracking countdown was initiated.

"At 16h47 Mk IIr blasted off - and the exultant team broke into cheers as the rocket reached a 17.9 km altitude, setting the new African record," said UKZN spokesperson Indu Moodley in a statement.

Pitot said the Mk IIr was a high-performance version of a previous rocket.

"The Mk IIr rocket is a high-performance version of our initial Mk I rocket, and demonstrates low-cost and robust construction methodologies coupled with advanced fabrication and propellant technologies."

Brooks acknowledged the substantial funding received from the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) for the project.

"This funding has enabled the development of key expertise in the engineering disciplines of rocket propulsion technology, launch vehicle design and flight dynamics modelling, as well as the development of appreciable scarce skills. It has also enabled unique cooperation between the university and industry," he said.

The ASReG team included 18 postgraduate and undergraduate students who contributed to the launch through their "innovative research".

How the project helped students

The students who were part of the project, are products of ASReG's DSI-funded transformation-centred talent pipeline programme, said Moodley.

Lead engineer on the Phoenix campaign was UKZN PhD student, Kai Broughton, a former winner of the prestigious Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) merit medal and a cum laude UKZN MSc Mechanical Engineering graduate who has been named among the African Space Industry's Top 10 Under 30s by the Space in Africa news agency.

Dean and Head of UKZN's School of Engineering, Professor Glen Bright said the launch "constitutes a deliverable on our DSI Space Propulsion Programme funding grant, under the category of technology demonstration".  

"We are thrilled at the outcome and are very proud of our students whose meticulous work, dedication and commitment contributed to this success."

The Chief Director of Space Science and Technology in the DSI, Humbulani Mudau, also commended the work.

"Excellent work, team ASReG. You have broken the African record. The DSI on behalf of government is very proud of this achievement. Well done."

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