UKZN Phoenix-1B Mk II-R & Mk I Sounding Rocket Launch

The ASReG team with the Phoenix-1B Mk I prior to the launch

On 8 March 2021 at 16h47 a sounding rocket was launched from Denel Overberg Test Range. At 16h47 the sounding rocket achieved a velocity of twice the speed of sound. At 16h47 the Phoenix-1B Mk II-R set a new African hybrid rocket altitude record of 17.9km.

We, at DIYElectronics, would like to congratulate everyone who took part and assisted with the Phoenix-1B Mk II-R and Mk I launch. Before we dive into the juicy details let’s take a quick look at what a sounding rocket is, and the history of the Phoenix Hybrid Sounding Rocket Program (HSRP).

What is a sounding rocket?

Sounding rockets are designed to carry scientific instruments into space along a parabolic trajectory. The vehicle speed is lower than other rockets and the time in space is short, usually reaching lower regions of space and allowing for scientific experiments. As the rockets don’t go into orbit they are more affordable and far better suited to carry out measurements in the lower regions of space.

The Phoenix Hybrid Sounding Rocket Program

The Hybrid Sounding Rocket Program (HSRP) began in 2010 at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) within the School of Engineering’s Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG). The program receives funding from the Department of Science and Innovation. The program was created as part of the South African government’s prioritisation of skills and resource development in space-related research. Since the start of the program in 2010, several students have gone on to work for institutions such as Armscor, Milkor, and Rheinmetall Denel Munition.

The objectives of the program are:

  • Develop a series of civilian sounding rockets that have the capacity to meet the requirements of the South African and African scientific communities.
  • Stimulate novel research into hybrid propulsion systems at UKZN.
  • Inspire students to pursue graduate studies at the School.
  • Generate interest in rocket propulsion, flight dynamics and air-frame design in South Africa generally.

There have been 3 previous iterations of the Phoenix hybrid sounding rocket.

  • Phoenix-1A: Launched in 2014 but encountered issues during lift-off and reached only 2.5km.
  • Phoenix-1B: Designed as a reliable launch system for ongoing research. Static motor tests completed.
  • Phoenix-1B Mk II: Launched in 2019 but a software fault caused the rocket to crash after reaching just 20 metres.
  • Phoenix-1B Mk II-R (Current): Launched on 8 March 2021. Refinement of the 2019 Mk II. Set a new altitude record.
  • Phoenix-1B Mk I (Current): Launched on 11 March 2021. Carried a test payload and reached 11km. Due to a partial recovery system failure payload recovery was not possible.

Two Phoenixes take flight

Phoenix-1B Mk II-R

On 8 March 2021, the Mk II-R launched from Denel Overberg Test Range, intending to see what distance could be achieved. The excitement of the launch was soon joined by jubilation as the launch team watched their rocket reach 17.9km, thus setting a new African hybrid rocket altitude record. To put this in perspective there are only a handful of universities globally that have achieved 18km with hybrid power. The Mk II-R is a refined version of the 2019 Mk II which had a failed launch due to software failure. The fuel used was a combination of solids and liquids and propelled the Mk II-R towards an apogee of 17.9km at 2.2 times the speed of sound. While many people across South Africa were reeling from this news a second rocket was being prepared.

Phoenix-1B Mk I

The Phoenix-1B Mk I was launched on 11 March 2021 with a different goal. The Mk I carried a test payload intended for recovery, this made it a bit more complex than the Mk II-R. With the marine recovery team ready the Mk I cleared the launch pad and raced skyward. The Mk I reached an altitude of 11km, also beating the previous record, before starting its descent. Unfortunately, due to partial recovery system failure the payload could not be recovered. Despite being unable to recover the payload the team was able to gather valuable data.

The success of the Phoenix-1B Mk II-R and the Mk I is certainly something to celebrate given the past of the Phoenix Hybrid Sounding Rocket Program. The launch was the culmination of months, and for some areas, years of preparation. The entire team and all required equipment having travelled a stressful 1700km to the test range for the launches. This was a monumental undertaking but thankfully the team was rewarded for their efforts with not only a successful launch and valuable data but a new record as well. The new record is an impressive 17.9km, almost doubling the previous record of 10.3km.

The Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation, Dr. Blade Nzimande said this success was a historic moment for South African space science. Dr. Nzimande went on to say this could position the country to take the lead on the continent in the development of rocket launch capabilities.

This success is great news when it is envisaged that the space industry will be one of the key drivers in addressing South Africa’s national priorities of job creation, poverty eradication, resource management, and rural development. The continued growth and success in the industry is key for the African Space Policy and Strategy.

During a television interview with Network Africa, co-lead of ASReG, Jean Pitot, had this to say about the launches. “It’s a demonstration of what is possible. What happened on Monday is going to inspire people to overcome the odds and challenges, and maybe take up a career in engineering, science, and math. In my opinion, there is nothing better than a rocket launch to inspire dreams.” Pitot went on to say that the program shows the knowledge and incredible talent available, from undergraduates and postgraduates to people in the industries.

A Small Step But a Giant Leap

The success of the launch might be seen by some as only a small step towards the end goal, but given the program’s past, this success is a giant leap forward. Congratulations to everyone involved. We at DIYElectronics and many people across the continent are excited to see what will happen next and where the program will go. We wish ASReG and the Hybrid Sounding Rocket Program all the best and similar success with future launches. You can watch the video of the launches here.

Do you want to find out about our contribution to the program and how 3D Printing was used? We might even have a special interview with a team member. Keep your eyes peeled for the next exciting post about the Phoenix-1B Mk II-R and Mk I launches.

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1 thought on “UKZN Phoenix-1B Mk II-R & Mk I Sounding Rocket Launch”

  1. As a amateur rocket scientist my self i find this really really impressive, I once held and altitude record for my 2 stage rocket that up to almost 4 km.

    Well done guys and girls I know this is no easy task

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