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Cadets test-fire FalconLaunch-8 rocket

Cadets in the FalconLaunch program conducted a successful static test-fire of the FalconLaunch-8 rocket’s propulsion system Jan. 15. (Photo Courtesy of the Department of Astronautics)

Cadets in the FalconLaunch program conducted a successful static test-fire of the FalconLaunch-8 rocket’s propulsion system Jan. 15. (Photo Courtesy of the Department of Astronautics)

By Academy Public Affairs

Cadets in the FalconLaunch program conducted a successful static test-fire of the FalconLaunch-8 rocket’s propulsion system Jan. 15.

FalconLaunch is a two-semester senior capstone design course for cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy where they gain hands-on experience, “learning 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 solidfueled sounding rocket carrying cadet-designed and Department of Defense payloads.

“We’re the only program in the world that produces sounding rockets and microsatellites at the undergraduate level,” said Col. Marty France, head of the Department of Astronautics.

Initial data showed that FalconLaunch-8 produced 3,300 pounds of thrust for about 10 seconds, Colonel France said.

“That’s a little lower thrust and a longer burn than we expected,” he added. The rocket is designed to produce 4,000 pounds of peak thrust during a 7.8-second burn. However, Colonel France also cautioned that the data was preliminary.

Cadets will analyze and compare the actual thrust and chamber pressure data received from this test against predicted values from simulations to ensure the motor design meets program requirements.

The FalconLaunch-8 rocket launch is supported by the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program and is designed to support an experimental winglet payload sponsored by Air Force Research Laboratory and the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The winglet experiment is being investigated for use on future reusable space flight vehicles. The supersonic speeds provided by FalconLaunch-8 will simulate part of the environment the fin tip will see during the space vehicle’s launch phase. To do so, FalconLaunch-8 must reach Mach 3 and maintain that speed for three to five seconds.

Once the full analysis is complete, some design modifications to the FalconLaunch-8 rocket are possible, Colonel France said. Currently, the rocket is scheduled for launch from the White Sands Missile Test Range in New Mexico.

The previous rocket in the FalconLaunch series, FalconLaunch-7, was also launched from White Sands. That April 2009 launch put the FalconLaunch-7 rocket’s boosted dart payload section up to an altitude of 354,724 feet, setting a world altitude record for university-built rockets.

The first five FalconLaunch rockets have each been successful, advancing the Academy’s sounding rocket program. FalconLaunch-6 was found to have a crack in its solid fuel grain as part of pre-launch inspections in 2008, and its launch was scrubbed. That rocket exploded during a

static test fire Nov. 4, 2009, and cadets used the findings of the FalconLaunch-6 investigation to adjust FalconLaunch-8’s design.

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 payloads into low-Earth orbit.

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