UKZN’s Phoenix 1 D rocket successfully launched from Denel Overberg Test Range

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The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN’s) Aerospace Systems Research Institute (ASRI) Space Propulsion Programme has successfully test-launched its Phoenix 1 D rocket from the Denel Overberg Test Range, with a second launch planned.

The hybrid test rocket took off from the Western Cape facility on Monday 13 March, carrying experimental sensors and cameras as part of the mission. The Phoenix-1D was expected to reach an altitude of up to 25 km.

Hybrid rockets used solid fuel with liquid oxidiser. Purely solid fuelled rockets are easier to handle but their thrust cannot be controlled and they are not as efficient as liquid fuelled rockets. While more complex, liquid fuelled rockets are capable of being throttled, shut down, and restarted.

The Minister of Higher Education Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, congratulated the ASRI on the launch. ASRI, formerly known as the Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG), is funded by the Department of Science and Innovation. It is pursuing the development of suborbital sounding rockets (Phoenix) and orbital liquid rocket engine technology (SAFFIRE – (South African First Integrated Rocket Engine) under one integrated Space Propulsion Programme.

“I am proud of the young people driving this exciting programme at UKZN. They are a team of dedicated mechanical engineering students who have been working tirelessly on ensuring that the launch is successful,” said Nzimande.

He praised the Phoenix hybrid rocket programme, which is a skills-development initiative focused on suborbital launch vehicle design and testing. The rockets were developed as a technology demonstration platform from which future commercial sounding rocket programmes can be developed.

Nzimande added that the space industry is envisaged as one of the key drivers in addressing South Africa’s national priorities of job creation, poverty eradication, resource management and rural development.

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

The team is now preparing for the second and final test for the campaign, that of the Phoenix 1C, a low-altitude rocket and, weather-permitting, it will be launched with experimental payloads for the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), SA National Space Agency (SANSA) and a private company that the engineers hope to recover. Depending on weather, launch will take place this week or next.

Both vehicles include design changes to the airframes and onboard systems that make them structurally more efficient, and form a critical part of ASRI’s mission to develop larger, orbital launch systems. The Phoenix 1C has a target altitude of 5 to 10 km and expectations are to recover its nose cone under a parachute.

On 14 March the programme presented STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Space Day where a group of grade 10 and 11 physical science learners from Hoërskool Bredasdorp attended. The learners attended a lecture on rocket technology, experience a radio-controlled aircraft demonstration and visited the ASRI Phoenix launch pad to have a close-up view of a hybrid rocket.

In March 2021, ASReG successfully launched the Phoenix-1B Mark IIr sounding rocket. It travelled 17.9 km into the air, achieving a new African hybrid rocket altitude record. This was the third rocket variant to be developed by ASReG. The first, the Phoenix-1A, was flight tested in 2014, but experienced a nozzle failure that limited its altitude. The second launch, in 2019, of the Phoenix-1B Mark II, was unsuccessful because of a software fault, and it exploded on launch. Valuable lessons were learnt from past failures, which helped with the successful launch of the cost-effective Phoenix-1B Mark Iir, the Department of Science and Innovation said.

Sounding rockets 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 hybrid rockets were developed as a technology demonstration platform from which a future commercial sounding rocket programme can be developed.

The programme, a human capital development initiative, started in 2010, has produced a number of graduates with advanced engineering skills, and who have been absorbed into South Africa’s engineering sector with entities including Rheinmetall Denel Munition, SANSA, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Armscor. Human capital development is the main objective of the programme, together with developing indigenous space propulsion technologies, the Department of Science and Innovation said.