Promising rocket scientists from UCT have a blast

  • Teams load their CanSats in the rocket's payload bays.
  • Team Excelsior's Dayne Kemp and Geoffrey Kilpin prepare to receive data from their CanSat just before launch.
  • Team Excelsior's CanSat featured a carbon fibre outer shell, with its GPS module mounted outside the casing to ensure it received a reliable signal.
  • Team NitiKnight's William Tipping-Woods demonstrates their deployable CanSat design that uses Nitinol wire to fold back and then release its wings.
  • The launch vehicle just before blast off.
  • A video grab showing the perfect launch.
  • Team Excelsior's Dayne Kemp (left) and Team NitiKnight's Andrew Nicol check to see if anything's salvageable after the rocket ploughed into the ground with their projects still on-board.
Date:24 August 2012 Author: Sean Woods Tags:,

Without highly skilled individuals capable of pushing technological boundaries, humanity is never going to move off this rock we call home. So it stands to reason that we need to invest in bright young minds, providing them with solid enough foundations to push our understanding of space technology into realms as yet unfathomed.

Fully aware of our dearth of local space expertise, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has initiated an Introduction to Space Technology course, specifically geared towards senior undergraduate and first year postgraduate students keen on pursuing careers in this exciting field.

Astrophysicist Dr Peter Martinez, chairperson for the South African Council for Space Affairs (SACSA), presents the course. “This is such a specialised area that there are very few space technology experts in any of our academic institutions, so my aim is to foster good communications between universities, industry and government research institutions,” he says. “This course is a perfect example of this type of synergy.”

Now in its fourth year, the course incorporates both theory and practice – giving students a holistic taste of what to expect once jettisoned into the workplace.

Guest speakers, all international experts in their fields, lecture on a diverse range of topics from space weather to liquid and solid rocket propulsion systems, space law, orbits and astrodynamics, space debris, telemetry and much more.

On the practical front, the students, drawn from UCT’s various departments, are separated into teams. The plan is twofold: first, it groups different skills and interests together, giving them the collective ability to problem-solve. Secondly, and just as importantly, it gives them exposure to the kind of group dynamics typically found in multi-disciplinary technical teams.

Preparing for liftoff
This year, two three-member teams took up the challenge; Team Excelsior and Team NitiKnight. Each had to design and build their own CanSat (a small, pseudo-satellite that incorporates many of the components found in the real thing), then get it to perform various autonomous tasks.

The CanSats must have a maximum weight (350 grams) and dimensions of a standard cool drink can, hence the name. Inside, the teams have to pack in enough hardware and electronics to collect live telemetry data and transmit it to the ground in real time, as well as develop their own ground systems to receive the transmitted data.

Once ejected from the launch rocket’s payload bays at an altitude of approximately 1,1 km, the CanSats then have to navigate themselves autonomously to a predetermined location on the ground. The examiners, in this case Martinez and the head of telemetry at Denel’s Overberg Test Range, Japie Venter, picked the location just a few hours before launch. That forces the teams to program the necessary co-ordinates on the fly.

How the CanSats arrive at their destination depends purely on the ingenuity of the teams. They can deploy either glider or parafoil configurations, even fall from the sky, hit the ground and drive – whatever they do, they just have to get there. “This course highlights the difference between engineering something on paper and making it work,” explains Martinez.

Crunch time
While waiting for the rocket carrying both teams’ payloads to launch at Denel’s Overberg Test Range, Martinez commented, “Even if it blows up on the launch pad, both teams will have gained a tremendous amount of experience just reaching this point.”

That’s not quite what happened, but he wasn’t too far wrong. The launch went flawlessly. Unfortunately, instead of reaching an apogee just over a kilometre high as planned, it levelled out at about 800 m. Because of its shallow trajectory, the rocket’s three parachutes didn’t stand a chance. The momentum ripped all three off their attachment points, followed by the rocket and its two-CanSat payload plummeting groundwards in a trajectory that would have made an Olympian javelin thrower proud.

Later, while the two teams rummaged through the wreckage to see if anything was salvageable, Team NitiKnight’s Andrew Nicol deadpanned: “Oh well, and that’s our final result!” Martinez was just as philosophical. “That’s engineering for you. You invariably learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.”

Neither team was put off by the experience one bit. In fact, both are keen to rebuild their projects and launch them again in their own time – just because they can.

Team Excelsior’s Dayne Kemp, who is the chairman of UCT’s South African Space Association (SASA) student chapter, would also like to throw down the gauntlet to other universities. “What we want to do is host an annual CanSat event. Apart from being loads of fun, it’ll also be a great way for us all to compete against each other and create more awareness about space studies here at home.”

To find out more visit SASA UCT’s Web site.


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