Failed UKZN rocket test launch a 'learning experience'

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The Phoenix-1B Mark 2 hybrid sounding rocket before the failed test launch on Monday.
The Phoenix-1B Mark 2 hybrid sounding rocket before the failed test launch on Monday.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) and research team at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) are undeterred after the unsuccessful test launch of the Phoenix-1B Mark 2 hybrid sounding rocket.

The test launch took place at the Denel Overberg Test Range in the Western Cape on Monday.

The Phoenix-1B sounding rocket demonstrator, developed by postgraduate UKZN students, was expected to reach a 15km altitude and a velocity of twice the speed of sound, but failed despite igniting successfully.

In a statement, the DST says shortly after motor ignition, the rocket left the launch rail but the motor shut down, resulting in the loss of the vehicle.

A preliminary investigation indicates this was caused by a malfunction in an electrically actuated oxidiser flow control valve located between the propellant tank and the motor. The valve closed unexpectedly, starving the motor of propellant and shutting off the thrust. The cause of the valve malfunction is being investigated so that the fault can be eliminated, reads the statement.

Phil Mjwara, director-general at the DST, says despite the failed test, the programme is still important in building specialised skills for the economy.

"It is part of the game where launching rockets is concerned. Hopefully, we will learn a lot more when we investigate what could have caused this."

According to the department, a key point of difference between sounding rockets and rockets that are used to launch satellites is that sounding rockets carry payloads on sub-orbital flights, which immediately return to earth, whereas satellite launch vehicles fly payloads into orbit around the earth.

South Africa does not offer a sounding rocket launch programme to support the country's or the African continent's scientific endeavours, which means local scientists wishing to make use of such a capability are required to contract international launch services.

In terms of this project, UKZN and DST aim to create an indigenous series of sounding rockets to serve the needs of the South African and African scientific research communities. In 2010, the Phoenix programme was started within the School of Engineering's Aerospace Systems Research Group, based at the university's mechanical engineering department.

Mjwara says government will continue its partnership with UKZN, noting the investment is resulting in the development of critical research and development in engineering, infrastructure and technology development.

"The UKZN is currently the only South African university pursuing an applied rocket propulsion programme, producing graduates with skills in advanced manufacturing, aerospace systems design and computational analysis," he points out.

Speaking after the tabling of the 2019 National Budget Speech yesterday, science and technology minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said the department was hopeful the rocket launch was going to be successful, but sometimes launches fail.

"What is important is that we are testing our technology and capabilities, and we will try again after three months. The report I received is that the infrastructure was good but the mistake happened in the launching."

Kubayi-Ngubane is confident the researchers will go back and look at what can be done differently for the next launch. "We are excited about the development and work that is being done. Our scientists and our teams are doing great work and we are seeing results."

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