Student group launches rocket 36,000 feet; gains grant for building liquid fueled rocket engine
The Student Space Systems (SSS) organization at the University of Illinois has achieved a milestone in its goal of reaching suborbital spaceflight by launching a rocket 36,000 feet into the atmosphere.
The group maintains theirs is the third highest university launch in history with a successful launch and recovery, behind earlier ones by the University of Southern California Rocket Propulsion Laboratory and the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
The group’s ultimate goal is a “space shot;” building a rocket that could fly to an altitude greater than 100 kilometers, thereby achieving suborbital spaceflight.
Meanwhile, the group has secured a $12,000 grant from the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) on the Urbana campus to build a sustainable liquid-fueled rocket engine with reusable 3D-printed parts.
The rocket launch accomplished this spring is the third phase in a five-phase plan SSS outlined when a group of freshmen first formed the organization in October 2013.
Phase I was the group’s first test launch; a rocket that flew to 4,500 feet in spring 2014. Phase II’s goal the following year was to launch a rocket to an altitude of greater than 10,000 feet. The group’s first Phase II attempt produced a rocket reaching 7,600 feet. However, on their second attempt to break the 10,000 foot barrier, there was a manufacturing error in the rocket’s commercially fabricated solid rocket engine. The error caused an explosion immediately after launch resulting in the rocket being unable to ever fly again.
“That was part of the reason that we wanted to explore liquids and hybrid engines because we wanted to build the rocket (engines) ourselves,” said SSS Technical President Ben Wexler.
This year’s launch proved much more successful.
“One of the amazing things about this launch, specifically, was how perfect it went,” said Wexler. “Usually, there’s something small that goes wrong. It’s very rare that something goes that well and that speaks a lot about the people in Student Space Systems that work on the project.”
The 100-member organization spent about a year on Phase III, culminating in the launch in March in California. The goal was to send a rocket higher than 35,000 feet while testing the telemetry system (live air to ground transmission of data), altitude, speed, acceleration, and GPS positioning. “We also had a GoPro (video recording device) on the rocket so we could get footage,” Wexler said.
The team also tried out a new means to deploy the parachute that would return the craft safely to Earth. “We developed a more creative high altitude version of the black powder deployment,” said Florin Ghinet, the team’s director of propulsion. “We developed a contained pressure vessel so we could ensure combustion.”
The rocket was recovered about eight miles from the launch pad, close to what SSS had expected from simulated exercises.
SSS is currently building Phase IV, a rocket with a goal of reaching an altitude of higher than 100,000ft. The exact launch date is not yet confirmed, however the group is aiming for a late spring or early summer launch, most likely in California or Nevada.
The $12,000 grant will cover the entire costs of the new 3D printed , liquid fueled rocket engine. The engine will be printed from Inconel-718, an alloy composed of nickel, cadmium, chrome and titanium, and suited for extreme environments subjected to pressure and heat. At about 11 inches tall, the new rocket engine will be fueled by a combination of oxygen and methane. “ If the first liquid engine test goes well, the Student Sustainability Council will award SSS another $13,000 to build a larger version of the engine that could potentially be used on Phase IV” Ghinet said.
The group's Phase V goal would be to reach the "space shot."