Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Rocket Lab, a New Zealand rocketry group, has launched a two stage sounding rocket that was expected to reach space. They claim that it did reach space, or strongly imply this (which the media takes as a confirmation, on face value with zero data, I might add.) There has, to date (12/3) been no confirmation of altitude or recovery of upper stage. Despite this, many news sources have jumped to the conclusion that it did reach space, and the team behind it is not doing anything to refute this rumor. Obviously they are worried about investments, and want the good press. But lets be clear: if they cant prove it went to space, there is no reason to assume it did. The amount of impulse used here is, as I say above, very low for a space flight. Even if the simulations show it does go to space, assuming that it did is a big mistake.
Check out the video on this page (sorry can't embed it.) Clearly it sounds like a hybrid!
Or you can watch the video here:
(Possibly with an annoying advertisement.)
I have to admit, that is a pretty badass booster stage.
Crummy youtube video here:
"The Atea-1 is a two-stage sub-orbital vehicle capable of carrying payloads of 2 kg up to 120 km altitude. The new launch vehicle offers significant advantages in cost and is aimed at opening up access to space for scientific research at an unprecedented level.
Rocket Lab has taken the approach to provide the international science community with a quick-response, mobile solution with high flexibility in mind. It can be launched by users on existing launch infrastructure or Rocket Lab can provide complete launch and recovery services.
The Ātea-1 leverages Rocket Lab’s innovative propulsion technologies in the form of a hybrid booster. This engine, currently under development, uses a polymer based fuel with liquid Nitrous Oxide. The engine is capable of producing a peak thrust of 1,550 lbf for up to 14.5s, resulting in a total impulse of approximately 22,500 lbf-s."
This booster is a small Q, according to my mental math. The upper stage looks like a K or so, probably just a solid.
I am a bit concerned because there is no information on how the altitude was confirmed. Hopefully there was some confirmation and this isn't just based on a simulation and a good launch. There is no indication that the team has recovered the upper stage, and frankly the odds of ever getting it back are slim, particularly if it landed in water. If there is no recovery and no confirmation, no space flight can be claimed. However the story is worthy of a post and continued tracking.
It is rather nice to see hybrids used in sounding rockets. This is one technology that hobby rocketry people do very well. It combines many of the good parts of bi-propellant rockets with many of the good parts of solid rocket motors. The long burn time of the first stage has to be a very beneficial factor in reaching space, as a Q 15,000 would hardly be appropriate here. However, this does clearly show that the types of solid rocket motors flown regularly at Balls launches ever year, O, P, and Q motors, are capable of flights to space. Now someone has to try it.
Universe Today Article
SatNews Daily (wth does that name mean?)
Here is a nice interview video:
And here is a link to the rocketry planet news article that talks about this project (from before the flight.)
Article with video at the upper right hand side.
Note the test flight of the upper stage, this time on a J motor. The fins on this upper stage are rather small, seemingly too small for a really stable flight. In this test flight the rocket shows signs of poor stability, conning, and lots of spin. These things could be enough to keep it from space even if a perfect flight would make space, and these effects would only get worse: At higher altitudes and higher mach speeds, the center of pressure generally seems to move forward from what I understand. Yet again, these are reasons to wonder if it actually did go to space, and a reason to demand proof. The onboard video is a nice touch, hopefully the upper stage had one and hopefully it can be recovered. That would be quite a view!
At most, there was a claim by the team that both stages worked. That is simply not good enough, and in a way it detracts from this great project. It is like having a top marathon runner start a race and appear to run well. Then suddenly you lose track of him half way to the finish line, and never see him again. He almost certainly made it to the end, but you have no right claiming that if you are to be scientific and honest. This type of amateur rocket to space (it would be only the 2nd to do it, and the 3rd to get close) is far less likely to succeed.
I would pose these questions in closing:
Does a team have the responsibility of correcting the media when premature claims are made?
Did this team carefully state that the final altitude is unknown in the press release?
If it is found that the rocket did not go to space (quite likely given the track record of other attempts like this), will anyone tell us?