Students from the University of the KwaZulu-Natal attempted to launch a home-grown research rocket on Monday, but things did not go as planned.
The Phoenix 1B Mark 2 was supposed to travel at twice the speed of sound and rise to an altitude of 15 km, before coming back down to earth.
Instead it reached about 20 metres before plummeting back to earth and exploding in a ball of smoke.
The sounding rocket (a rocket that carries instruments and performs scientific experiments) lifted off around 14:30 from the Denel Overberg Test Range in the Western Cape.
The launch was supposed to usher in a new era of research for Africa. If it had managed to reach the expected 15km it would have beaten a South African record as the highest hybrid rocket the country has ever sent into the sky.
The Phoenix 1B is part of the UKZN’s Phoenix Hybrid Sounding Rocket Programme, which seeks to develop home-grown rockets to serve the needs of the South African and African scientific research communities.
Sounding rockets carry payloads of experiments for bio-technology, astronomy, astrophysics, materials science and meteorology, among many others.
They’re not to be confused with a satellite launch vehicle that fly payloads into orbit around the Earth - like the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s ZACube-2 nanosatellite.
The UKZN programme is an African first as no other sounding rocket programme exists on the continent. The research could cut out the need for local scientists to contract international launch services, operated out of countries like Sweden, Norway, Brazil, Australia, the United States and Japan.
Before plummeting back to Earth, the Phoenix-1 contained an advanced paraffin wax and aluminium powder fuel, that improves performance beyond conventional fuels like rubber or plastic.
It was uniquely equipped with hybrid rocket motors, designed by the universities' Aerospace Systems Research Group, as opposed to conventionally-used solid rocket motors.
Hybrid rocket motors combust a combination of liquid and solid propellants, rather than propellants that are in either liquid or solid form. The fuel is more stable, meaning research instruments are less likely to blow up during launch, and is safer to work with in a university environment.
What also makes the rocket unique is its carbon fibre composite tank – the first sounding rocket demonstrator to make use of such a filament wound.
UKZN is currently the only South African university pursuing an applied rocket propulsion research programme which is funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).
Its not all bad news for the project. Thus far, the Phoenix Programme has seen the development of three sounding rockets: Phoenix-1A, Phoenix-1B Mark 1, and Phoenix-1B Mark 2 (the one that exploded).
Phoenix-1A, classified as a technology demonstrator, was developed by past postgraduate students Bernard Genevieve and Seffat Choudhury and successfully flight tested at the OTR facility in 2014.
The Phoenix- 1A rocket primarily served to provide the technical foundation for the programme.
A third rocket, a Phoenix-1B Mark 1, is being developed by past postgraduate student Udil Balmogim, which will undergo flight testing in 2020.
The team is currently investigating what went wrong with the launch. But the DST says the lessons learnt from this experiment will go toward making the Mark 1 launch a success.
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