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By Faizel Patel

Senior Digital Journalist

WATCH: UKZN celebrates successful Phoenix 1-D hybrid rocket launch

UKZN is the only South African university pursuing an applied rocket propulsion programme, producing graduates with several skill sets

The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Aerospace Systems Research Institute (ASRI) Space Propulsion Programme has successfully test launched its Phoenix 1-D hybrid rocket.

The rocket, which was carrying experimental sensors and cameras as part of the mission, blasted off from Denel’s Overberg Test Range in Arniston on Monday.

Watch the Phoenix 1 D hybrid rocket launch

Rocket propulsion

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.

ASRI, the former Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG), funded by the Department of Science and Innovation, is pursuing the development of sub-orbital sounding rockets (Phoenix) and orbital liquid rocket engine technology (SAFFIRE) under one integrated Space Propulsion Programme (SPP).

Second launch

Speaking to The Citizen, Professor Michael Brooks from UKZN’s mechanical engineering department said they were excited by the launch.

“The team is delighted to be able to test the rocket and the flight was really beautiful.”

Professor Brooks said the team is now preparing for the second and final test for the campaign, that of the Phoenix 1-C, a low-altitude rocket, weather permitting.

“We need to be aware of weather conditions when we launch these rockets for safety reasons. So, at the moment we are not sure when we will launch next, but we will take the first opportunity in the next few days, if not, it will be held over until next week.”

He said the second launch will include experimental payloads for the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) and a private company that the engineers hope to recover.

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Space tech  

Professor Brooks said the Phoenix hybrid rocket programme is driven by young mechanical engineering students at UKZN.

“We are training mechanical engineering students in aerospace engineering and rocket development as we have a programme in our mechanical engineering department where the rocket work is part of a larger space propulsion programme which aims eventually to develop an orbital launch capability in South Africa.

“In other words, the ability to place satellites in orbit from South African soil,” Professor Brookes said.

Sounding rockets

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. The 2021 launch was hugely significant for South African engineering and the development of an African satellite rocket launch capability.

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 variety of scientific disciplines, including biotechnology, astronomy, astrophysics, materials science and meteorology. 

Phoenix programme

The Phoenix programme is a human capital development initiative.

The programme, 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 CSIR and Armscor.

Human capital development is the main objective of the programme, together with developing indigenous space propulsion technologies.

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