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UKZN rocket readies for lift off

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UKZN and DST aim to create an indigenous series of sounding rockets to serve Africa's scientific research communities.
UKZN and DST aim to create an indigenous series of sounding rockets to serve Africa's scientific research communities.

Today, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) will test-launch its Phoenix-1B Mark 2 hybrid sounding rocket at the Denel Overberg Test Range in the Western Cape.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST), which is funding the sounding rocket project, says the day's weather conditions will be critical to the success of the launch; otherwise it may result in the launch being postponed to a later date.

According to the DST, 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.

"Internationally, sounding rockets have and 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. The Phoenix-1B sounding rocket has been developed as a technology demonstration platform, and is expected to reach an altitude of 15km during its flight," states the DST.

Rise of the Phoenix

In 2010, UKZN initiated the flagship Phoenix Hybrid Sounding Rocket Programme in response to government's call for skills and resource development in space-related research. The Phoenix programme was started within the School of Engineering's Aerospace Systems Research Group, based at the university's mechanical engineering department.

So far, the programme has seen the development of three sounding rockets: Phoenix-1A, Phoenix-1B Mark 1 and Phoenix-1B Mark 2.

Phoenix-1A, classified as a technology demonstrator, was developed by past postgraduate students Bernard Genevieve and Seffat Choudhury, and successfully flight-tested at the Overberg Test Range facility in 2014.

The DST highlights the Phoenix-1A rocket primarily served to provide the technical foundation for the programme. The Mark 1 and Mark 2 variants of the Phoenix-1B rocket have been developed roughly in parallel, and have both been successfully ground-tested.

The Mark 2 variant, developed by current UKZN postgraduate students, Kai Broughton and Dylan Williams, is the variant that will be flight-tested today. It is hoped the Mark 1 variant, developed by past postgraduate student Udil Balmogim, will undergo flight testing in 2020.

The department explains: "The Phoenix-1B Mark 2 sounding rocket...represents the pinnacle of the Phoenix programme's research efforts thus far. It employs an advanced paraffin wax/aluminium powder fuel for increased performance, and features a state-of-the-art filament wound composite nitrous oxide tank along with an ablative composite combustion chamber nozzle.

"The Mark 2 is just short of 5m in length and has a lift-off mass of 88kg. Its hybrid rocket motor produces a peak thrust of approximately 700kg and will operate for around 15s. Flight trajectory simulations indicate the Mark 2 will achieve a maximum altitude of approximately 15km above sea level, and a maximum speed of over two times the speed of sound.

"During flight, Mark 2 will be tracked by the facility's impressive array of optical and radar trackers, which will provide real-time flight data to guests viewing the launch from the gallery overlooking the control room. The Mark 2 variant of the Phoenix-1B will not be equipped with a parachute recovery system, and is expected to safely land several kilometres out to sea."

Hoax mission?

Meanwhile, the Mars One project, which aimed to establish permanent human settlement on that planet, is reportedly no more. TechCrunch revealed the company spearheading the initiative has "quietly filed for bankruptcy".

According to the technology publication, the Mars One group is made up of two parts: a non-profit called the Mars One Foundation and a for-profit company known as Mars One Ventures. It is Mars One Ventures that is in administration, which the group also confirmed in a statement last week.

This news comes amid reports describing the one-way mission to Mars as a hoax that "preyed on space enthusiasts". Through its foundation, the Mars One team planned to complete several unmanned missions and establish a habitable settlement before carefully selected and trained crews departed to Mars.

South African Dr Adriana Marais, theoretical physicist, aspiring extra-terrestrial and head of innovation at SAP Africa, was one of the top 100 candidates selected for the scientific expedition. The number of candidates was expected to be narrowed down to 24 late last year.

Bas Lansdorp, Mars One CEO, stressed the Mars One Foundation is not affected by this procedure.

"Trading of the shares of Mars One Ventures AG, listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, was suspended for non-compliance with the FSE regulations when the number of shares was increased in 2017. The company was on its way to correct these compliance problems for the resumption of trading of the shares; these efforts were upended by the current situation," the statement reads.

Phoenix-1B sounding rocket - static cold flow test of PV 2 Motor takes place on 1 September 2017. [Source: UKZN YouTube page]

Phoenix-1B sounding rocket - static hot fire test of PV 2 Motor was held on 20 April 2018. [Source: UKZN YouTube page]

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