UKZN hybrid rocket achieves record 18 km altitude in Overberg launch


A Phoenix-1B Mk IIr hybrid rocket developed by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and launched from the Denel Overberg Test Range in the Western Cape has reached an altitude of 18 kilometres, setting a new African record.

The launch took place on 8 March and saw the rocket travel 17.9 km into the air against a targeted range of 15 km, achieving a new African hybrid rocket altitude record (the previous record was 10.3 km). The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, said the launch is hugely significant for South African engineering and the development of African satellite rocket launch capability.

The Phoenix-1B Mark IIr is the third rocket variant to be developed by the UKZN’s Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG), which is funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). The first, the Phoenix-1A, was flight tested in 2014, but experienced a nozzle failure, which limited altitude. The second launch, in 2019, of the Phoenix-1B Mark II, was unsuccessful because of a software fault in the code that controlled the opening and closing of the main oxidizer valve – the rocket lifted off the launch pad but then crashed back to Earth.

Valuable lessons were learnt from past failures, which assisted in the successful launch of the cost-effective Phoenix-1B Mark IIr, a revised version of the Mark II lost in 2019, the DSI said.

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

The Phoenix-1B Mark IIr hybrid rocket, developed by postgraduate students under the supervision of ASReG, reached an altitude of 17.9 km and a velocity of twice the speed of sound. The rocket was launched seawards and was not recovered.

“This is a game-changer for South African space science and positions the country to take the lead on the continent in the development of rocket launch capabilities,” said Nzimande.

The DSI said it is envisaged that the space industry will be one of the key drivers and instruments in addressing South Africa’s national priorities of job creation, poverty eradication, resource management and rural development. The continued advancement and sustainability of the industry would also present opportunities to turn South Africa into a knowledge-based economy, promotion of human capacity development in launching capability in particular, and playing a key role in the implementation of African Space Policy and Strategy. To ensure the long-term progression and sustainability of the South African space industry, the South African space programme is required to unlock dedicated investment for exploring the country’s space capabilities.

“Recent disruptive satellite technology trends are reshaping the traditional launch market using launch technologies with a reduced entry barrier (cost and complexity) and leveraging significant South African heritage technologies. The target market is commercial small satellite launches with payload of 200 kg to an altitude of 500 km, and sounding rocket launches into space from Overberg Test Range,” said Dr Mmboneni Muofhe, the DSI’s Deputy Director-General of Technology Innovation.

He explained that the ASReG programme was a multi-pronged strategy through which South Africa was developing human capital, and projects like the Phoenix-1B Mark IIr provided opportunities to do just that.

Muofhe said that the government would continue to invest in the project, which was resulting in critical research and development in engineering, infrastructure and technology.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal 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.

The programme started in 2010, and a number of students involved in it are now working in key technical positions in institutions such as Armscor, Milkor and Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM). This is the main objective of the programme, together with developing indigenous space propulsion technologies, the DSI said.

Sounding rockets are rocket-propelled launch vehicles that carry experimental payloads to the upper reaches of the atmosphere or into space. They play a crucial role in facilitating experiments in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including biotechnology, astronomy, astrophysics, materials science and meteorology. The Phoenix-1B Mark IIr hybrid rocket was developed as a technology demonstration platform from which a future commercial sounding rocket programme can be developed.

The DSI is funding the ASReG programme, which has enabled UKZN to develop key expertise in the engineering disciplines of rocket propulsion technology, launch vehicle design and flight dynamics modelling. It has also enabled unique cooperation between the university and industry.

RDM’s contribution to the rocket programme included support towards the composite filament wound nitrous oxide tank and nozzle assembly. The company also provided engineering and technical support and specialised hardware and test support.

RDM has substantial experience with rocketry, as it supplies components to South African and international companies, including Denel Dynamics and Thales. It manufactures rocket motors, warheads and launchers, including for FZ-90 rockets, and motors, warheads and safety and arming devices for the Umkhonto, Ingwe, Mokopa and A-Darter missiles.

In November 2020, RDM and the University of KwaZulu-Natal signed a cooperation agreement on rocket propulsion as an early step for a commercial satellite launch vehicle. The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) covers cooperation in the development of new rocket propulsion technologies, including collaborating on a liquid propellant rocket engine project named SAFFIRE, RDM said. The SAFFIRE initiative – South African First Integrated Rocket Engine – is a project created by the UKZN’s Aerospace Systems Research Group.

The immediate aim of SAFFIRE is the development of a compact rocket engine that can be clustered to power the first and second stages of a commercial small-satellite launch vehicle.

RDM will support the programme with element design, analysis and the manufacturing of key components, as well as the static evaluation of these rocket engines.

RDM is well equipped to support ASReG’s rocket projects as the company, through earlier entities such as Kentron, Houwteq and Somchem, was the primary developer and manufacturer of the space launch propulsion systems for South Africa’s space programme. Solid rocket propulsion systems were used to launch payloads of more than 350 kg into low-Earth orbit. Four South African space rockets were built, and three launched-between 1989 and 1990, but without useful payloads. The RSA-3 rocket, which was never launched, can still be seen at the South African Air Force Museum at Air Force Base Swartkop outside Pretoria.

South Africa’s space launch programme was shelved in 1994 when South Africa joined the Missile Technology Control Regime and the focus moved towards missile propulsion systems for, amongst others, Denel Dynamics’ Umkhonto, A-Darter, Ingwe and Mokopa missiles and other international clients. The result is that most of this strategic propulsion capability still exists within RDM today.