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FalconLaunch 6 ends test fire with a bang

Cadets 1st Class Woody Sukut, Dan Richardson and Nolan Brock secure the rocket to the test stand for a test fire of the propulsion section. Photo by Mike Kaplan

Cadets 1st Class Woody Sukut, Dan Richardson and Nolan Brock secure the rocket to the test stand for a test fire of the propulsion section. Photo by Mike Kaplan

By John Van Winkle

Academy Public Affairs

The FalconLaunch 6 rocket ended its test-firing Wednesday in Jacks Valley with a bang.

The cadet rocket was secured to a test pad, and once the countdown ended, the rocket fired for a fraction of a second and then exploded.

The FalconLaunch cadre was watching the unexpected fireworks from 900 yards away, and thus the explosion resulted in zero injuries.

Firefighters from the Academy Fire Department’s Fire Engine 7, out of Fire Station 2 were on-site for the test-fire. Once the rocket exploded, they moved in quickly to stifle any small bits of fire created by the rocket’s fragments. After a minute, the area was declared safe and the cadets and instructors moved in to survey the site and locate the rocket’s remnants. Overall damage to the area and test pad were minimal, with only a few small patches of scorched grasses. Fragments of the rocket were scattered over a 50-yard radius, and a mystery remained to be solved.

The purpose of the static test fire of the FalconLaunch 6 propulsion system was to validate a new data acquisition system and perform further testing on an igniter design that was developed during a previous academic year. The current academic year’s team of FalconLaunch cadets was set to analyze and compare the actual thrust and chamber pressure data received from the test against predicted simulations.

“We expected 10.5 seconds of burn with about 4,000 pounds of thrust. This one was not that. Hopefully we’ll be able to recover the data analysis and be able to review the video. Now the cadets’ job is to find out why this happened,” said Col. Marty France, Permanent Professor and director of the Department of Astronautics.

Analysis began immediately after the attempted static test-fire. Cadets and instructors immediately began scrutinizing the video and discussing possible causes of the demise of FalconLaunch 6. Items discussed included a pressure plug, chamber pressure, the igniter, and the nozzle throat, and the pressure and thermal tolerances of each were examined.

“This was not what we expected, but it will become a learning experience to figure out why this happened and prevent it from reoccurring,” said Cadet 1st Class Sean Foote, from the FalconLaunch propulsion team.

“We’ll collect all the pieces and the data, and try to figure out why this happened and determine how it will affect the rest of the program,” he added.

A thorough analysis is now underway to determine the cause of the rocket’s demise. As for the cadet rocket program, FalconLaunch 6 was actually a step back into recent history, and now literally a blast from the past.

FalconLaunch 6 was originally scheduled to launch from NASA’s Wallops Island, Va., range in April 2008, but a crack discovered in the solid propellant grain scrubbed the launch. The rocket was again scheduled for launch (with the existing crack) from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in April 2009. But that was canceled again due to the possibility of impacting the White Sands National Monument.

Meanwhile, Astronautics continued and advanced the FalconLaunch program, despite FalconLaunch 6’s issues. FalconLaunch 6 was the product of the 2007-2008 academic year, but the FalconLaunch 7 rocket from the 2008-2009 academic year had a successful launch at White Sands in April. Radar data shows that the FalconLaunch 7 rocket’s boosted-dart payload section reached an altitude of 354,724 feet, setting an unofficial world altitude record for university-built rockets.

FalconLaunch 8 is under development this academic year.

“We’ll test the new design for FalconLaunch 8 in January, and if all goes well, then we’ll launch FalconLaunch 8 from White Sands in April,” said Colonel France.

FalconLaunch is the product of the Astronautical Engineering 452 and 453 courses, a two-semester senior capstone design course for cadets where they learn space by doing space. Over the course of the year, the multidisciplinary cadet team, with faculty mentors from several academic departments design, build test, and fly a solid-fuel sounding rocket carrying Department of Defense payloads.

The FalconLaunch program’s end goal is to provide the Air Force and Department of Defense with a cost-efficient, operationally responsive method of delivering small scientific and engineering nanosatellites into a suborbital flight path. To do that, the nanosatellite must reach an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 328,084 feet – which FalconLaunch 7 accomplished and surpassed in April.

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