South Africa could very soon be competing with its counterparts in the space and satellite fields after the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) successfully launched their first Phoenix-1B Mark IIr sounding rocket.
Dr Blade Nzimande, minister of higher education, science and innovation congratulated the developers of the rocket for their accomplishment. The launch, which took place on Monday at the Denel Overberg Test Range in the Western Cape, saw the test rocket travel 17, 9 km into the air achieving a new African hybrid rocket altitude record. The rocket was launched seawards and was not recovered.
Nzimande said the launch represents a major breakthrough and will have a significant impact for the South African engineering and the development of African satellite rocket launch capability.
The success of the test rocket brought a huge relief to the UKZN particularly its developers after two field attempts in the past failed. The first attempt involved the Phoenix-1A and it was flight tested in 2014, but “experienced a nozzle failure”, which seriously limited altitude. The second attempt was made in 2019, and it was also unsuccessful after it experienced a “software fault in the code that controlled the opening and closing of the main oxidizer valve”.
The team went back to the drawing board and used the past failures as valuable lessons for future launches. The success of the launch on Monday is attributed to this planning. The developers said they also ensured that Phoenix-1B Mark IIr, which is a revised version of the Mark II lost in 2019, is cost-effective.
Phoenix-1B Mark IIr is the third rocket variant to be developed by the UKZN’s Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG), which is funded by the department of science and innovation.
ASReG’s Phoenix Hybrid Rocket Programme is also a skills development initiative that focuses on suborbital launch vehicle design and testing.
Post-graduate students under the supervision of ASReG developed the Phoenix-1B Mark IIr hybrid rocket, which reached an altitude of 17, 9 km and a velocity of twice the speed of sound.
“This is a game-changer for South African space science and positions the country to take the lead on the continent in the development of rocket launch capabilities,” said Nzimande, adding that this was a historic moment for South African space science.
The space industry is earmarked as one of the key drivers and economic levers that the country can use to address South Africa’s national priorities of job creation, poverty eradication, resource management and rural development.
According to the department, the continued advancement and sustainability of the industry would also present opportunities to turn South Africa into a knowledge-based economy and the promotion of human capacity development in launching capability. More significantly, it will also play a key role in the implementation of African Space Policy and Strategy.
To ensure the long-term progression and sustainability of the South African space industry, the South African space programme is required to unlock dedicated investment for exploring the country’s space capabilities, department said.
“Recent disruptive satellite technology trends are reshaping the traditional launch market using launch technologies with a reduced entry barrier (cost and complexity) and leveraging significant South African heritage technologies. The target market is commercial small satellite launches with payload of 200 kg to an altitude of 500 km, and sounding rocket launches into space from Overberg Test Range,” said Dr Mmboneni Muofhe, the department’s deputy director-general of technology innovation.
He explained that the ASReG programme was a multi-pronged strategy through which South Africa was developing human capital, and projects like the Phoenix-1B Mark IIr provided opportunities to realise this objective.
Muofhe added that government would continue to invest in the project, which contributes immensely to critical research and development in engineering, infrastructure and technology.
UKZN is currently the only South African university pursuing an applied rocket propulsion programme, producing graduates with skills in advanced manufacturing, aerospace systems design, and computational analysis, according to the DSI.
Sounding rockets are explained as 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 wide variety of scientific disciplines, including biotechnology, astronomy, astrophysics, materials science and meteorology. The Phoenix-1B Mark IIr hybrid rocket was developed as a technology demonstration platform from which a future commercial sounding rocket programme can be developed.
The DSI’s funding of the ASReG programme has enabled UKZN to develop key expertise in a number of strategic areas in the engineering disciplines. These include rocket propulsion technology, launch vehicle design and flight dynamics modelling. The funding has also paved a way for the university to forge co-operation with industry.
The programme started in 2010, and a number of students involved in it are now working in key technical positions in institutions such as Armscor, Milkor and Rheinmetall Denel Munition. This is the main objective of the programme, together with developing indigenous space propulsion technologies.