Last updated July 19, 2019 at 1:40 pm
Outback Queensland shook from the noise of the first university rocket competition. ANU Rocketry were one of the teams competing.
It has the feel of a country music festival. Red dirt extends to the horizon, tents and utes set up in a paddock, and the combined buzz of flies and anticipation in the air.
Yet the headliners aren’t chart toppers, but rockets over three metres tall being readied for launch. Serious rocket science is going on here.
Welcome to Thunda Down Under, the southern hemisphere’s largest amateur rocketry event. For one weekend a year thousands of rocket builders from across Australia and the world transform Westmar, in outback Queensland, into arguably the world’s busiest rocket launch location.
Some of the rockets tower over their builders, weigh as much as a person, fly higher than a jet-liner, and at supersonic speeds.
Bringing the Thunder to a rocket competition
Australia’s fledgling space agency does not have a rocket launch capability… yet.
The people to change that just might be at Thunda, which this year also hosted the inaugural Australian Universities Rocketry Competition.
The competition, started by the Australian Youth Aerospace Association, challenges teams of university students to design, build, and launch a rocket carrying a 4 kg payload to target altitudes of either 10,000 or 30,000 feet (3 km or 9 km), and then make a safe landing within a target area.
Each team in the rocket competition is assessed on the technical merit and innovation of their design, how close they get to their target altitude, and on a safe and accurate recovery. Every foot above or below the altitude target costs a team valuable points. The competition also emphasised a focus on payloads that perform scientific measurements. All this means that as well as constructing a rocket and payload robust enough to withstand hundreds of times its own weight as it accelerates skywards, the team’s calculations of their rocket’s trajectory must be spot on.
On our way to orbit
We had a lot of catching up to do. Our team was registered in mid-September – the due date for the first progress report, meaning the other teams had a huge head start.
The team worked hard in their spare time around classes and through summer holidays, analysing different designs and simulating their performance.
Our crew responsible for constructing the competition and test rockets toiled through the heat of summer in an old garage behind the ANU physics building.
Little by little we caught up. But we also had to get certified.
To launch high-powered rockets in Australia, you need to demonstrate that you have designed and built a rocket to the required safety standards – and that you can launch and recover it safely. In order to even be allowed to launch the competition rocket, the ANU team also had to get certified twice on successively larger rockets.
And that was before we even got to Thunda.
Launch day arrives
On the day of the launch our team loaded the rocket, named Astra, onto its guide rail and pointed it skywards.
Months of work were about to come to fruition. We hoped.
For its payload, Astra carried a prototype UV spectrograph built by colleagues at ANU. Its mission was to measure the change in the amount of UV light as it rose through the atmosphere, and prove the performacne of the spectrograph at high altitudes.
Three. Deep breath.
Two. Nervous smile.
One. Here we go.
The rocket roared into life and streaked into the sky. Burning through its fuel in less than 5 seconds, Astra reached close to the speed of sound, fast enough to coast the rest of the way to 10,000 feet.
After the successful launch, team leader Broden Diggle struggled to put words together.
“That feeling… Seeing the team’s hard work take off into the sky is indescribable – it’s such a fantastic feeling,” he said.
Beaten by a rocketry photo-finish
An onboard altimeter detected when the rocket reached its maximum height and started to fall back to Earth, deploying a small parachute to slow its decent but prevent it from drifting too far in the wind. As the rocket neared the ground, it then deployed a larger parachute to provide a safe touchdown in the landing area.
To find out how high the rocket had gone, we opened the rocket’s avionics bay and downloaded the data from the altimeter. 10,130 feet! Only 1.3% above the target!
But not close enough. UQ Space, with their rocket Minerva, came in at 10,129 feet. The high-powered rocketry equivalent of a photo-finish.
That one foot closer to the target meant ANU Rocketry were pushed into second place in flight performance. Once that was combined with our scores for design and innovation, based on progress reports submitted during the preceding months, the ANU team came in at third place overall.
UQ Space had prevailed overall in the 10,000 foot category.
“We are super stoked,” says Broden, “especially considering the teams above us had a year’s head start.”
“Getting to this stage in only six months has been very challenging, but immensely rewarding. The interdisciplinary nature of rocketry meant that, to succeed, we had to create a diverse team that combined different skills and disciplines.”
The rocket competition for Australia’s space future
In the 30,000 foot division, Team Hive from RMIT placed first with a rocket called Mooncake the Third. Their payload measured the behaviour of magnetic fluids in microgravity.
The Australian Universities Rocketry Competition was a huge success and looks certain to continue for years to come. It’s the perfect training ground for the next generation of scientists and engineers who will lead Australia into the commercial space age.
That’s certainly the aim for many members of the ANU Rocketry team. “I hope I can enter the burgeoning space industry in Australia and be a part of a launch to space,” says Broden.
And after this year’s result, ANU Rocketry will be back at the next competition too. We’ve got a new rival in UQ Space to beat.
This article was co-authored by Broden Diggle.