Wed. Aug 21st, 2019

First Student-Designed Rocket Reaches Outer Space

3 min read


The University of Southern California Rocket Propulsion Laboratory made history last month.

At 8 a.m. on April 21, Traveler IV surpassed the world altitude record for student rocketry teams, reaching 340,000 feet and successfully passing the Kármán line.

Named after Theodore von Kármán, a Hungarian-American engineer and physicist, the so-called line is an attempt to delineate a boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

There is no international law marking the edge of space; the U.S. Air Force and NASA define the limit as 50 miles (264,000 feet) above sea level.

Flying a whopping 340,000 feet (with a margin of error of +/- 16,800 feet), RPL has not only broken its previous record, but fulfilled its founding mission: to launch and recover the world’s first entirely student-designed and fabricated rocket into outer space.

“We can say with 90 percent certainty that RPL’s latest spaceshot, Traveler IV, passed the Kármán line,” Neil Tewskbury, lead operations officer at RPL, said in a statement.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though.

Predecessors Traveler I and Traveler II—victims of a mid-flight solid motor explosion and a carbon fiber casing failure, respectively—are among the mangled metal corpses strung up from the lab’s ceilings.

The disastrous launch of Traveler III, meanwhile, left the missile in pieces too small to display.

Still, RPL members remained cautiously optimistic about their next-generation spacecraft.

“Against the roar of the 8-inch diameter, 13-foot-tall rocket erupting out of the launch tower, hushed gasps could be heard from spectators, who had been ordered into silence to allow communication between the operations team, the avionics team, and the rocket itself,” according to a dramatic USC press release.

“Everyone remembered Traveler III and the miscommunication issues that had obliterated that rocket in the Nevada desert last September,” the University said.

Four time’s the charm.

Traveler IV accelerated to its top speed of 4,970 ft/s, or Mach 5.1, during its 11.5-second motor burn, then cruised the remaining 140 seconds, before reaching maximum altitude.

RPL’s custom-built avionics system recorded the flight using onboard sensors and deployed the vehicle’s parachutes at apogee, allowing the rocket to safely glide to Earth.

USC RPL’s Traveler IV, fully recovered after its record-shattering flight (via Neil Tewksbury/USC RPL)

The triumphant flight lasted only 11 minutes.

“The ability of this team to overcome setbacks and continuously innovate new technology has been inspiring,” chief student engineer Dennis Smalling said in a statement. “I’m so proud of what this lab has been able to accomplish so far and I’m incredibly excited to see where RPL goes from here.”

His sentiment was echoed by USC Viterbi Dead Yannis Yortsos, who boasted about the laboratory’s “indomitable spirit of innovation and perseverance.”

“This remarkable moment is a testament to their ingenuity and dedication,” he said.

The students don’t have time, though, to delight in their accomplishments: RPL has already begun design on the next mission—a liquid-fueled vehicle aimed at its own world record.

The team is also working hard on future projects like CubeSat deployment, active rocket stabilization, and new solid engine designs.

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