Mishap during UKZN sounding rocket launch


The launch of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Phoenix-1B sounding rocket on 18 February ended in a cloud of smoke and debris as the rocket fell back to earth and exploded in a setback to the Hybrid Sounding Rocket Programme.

The rocket was launched around 14:30 at the Denel Overberg Test Range, but only reached a height of under 20 metres before falling back to earth and exploding. If the launch had been successful, it would have reached a height of 15 km, becoming the first South African sounding rocket to reach that altitude.

The UKZN’s Michael Brooks said an investigation into the launch failure of the 90 kg, 5 metre long rocket will be undertaken.

The Phoenix Hybrid Sounding Rocket Programme seeks to develop 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 Department of Science and Technology said.

The Department of Science and Technology is funding the project, which has enabled the university to develop key expertise in the engineering disciplines of rocket propulsion technology, launch vehicle design and flight dynamics modelling, as well as the development of appreciable human capital. It has also enabled unique cooperation between the University and industry. R15 million in funding has been applied to the programme.

In August 2014 the UKZN launched the 4.4 metre Phoenix-1A hybrid fuel sounding rocket, future versions of which will carry scientific instruments 100km into the upper atmosphere. It was flown from the Denel Overberg Test Range after being launched from the custom built Mobile Rocket Launch Platform (MRLP). The UKZN subsequently developed the Phoenix-1B rocket, designed to reach an altitude of 15 km.

The Phoenix-1B Mk II that was attempted to be launched on 18 February featured an advanced propulsion system that uses paraffin wax and aluminium powder for increased performance, and a state-of-the-art filament-wound composite nitrous oxide tank with an ablative composite combustion chamber nozzle. It was designed to produce 700 kg of thrust for 15 seconds, giving a top speed of over Mach 2.

The rocket motor was a composite design (using both liquid and solid propellants), making the fuel more stable and safer to work with.

The sounding rocket programme is being developed by the UKZN’s Mechanical Engineering department’s Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReg).

The UKZN plans to launch another Phoenix-1B rocket in 2020.