Sheffield students launch a two-stage rocket in California

Students from the Faculty of Engineering launched a two-stage rocket in California in an attempt to reach an altitude of 100,000ft.

Students from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sheffield built and launched a two-stage rocket in the Mojave Desert, California with the rocket reaching 22,000ft (4.2 miles) above sea level.

This launch was the latest attempt from Sunride, the University’s student rocketry team to break its own UK open altitude record of 36,274ft (approximately 7 miles) set in 2019. The rocket named Kaman Alpha was aiming for an altitude of 100,000ft (18.6 miles), almost triple the current record set by the team.

In order to reach this record altitude, the team built Karman Alpha, a two-stage rocket - containing two solid rocket motors. The first stage was designed to propel the rocket to Mach 1.1 and 8500 feet. After this, the two stages would separate, and the upper stage would accelerate to Mach 3.1 and 100,000 feet. The rocket also contained a custom data logging flight computer, developed by the team over the last year.

The students launched Kaman Alpha on 1 July 2023 from the Friends of Amateur Rocketry launch site in the Mojave Desert, California.

Photo of Merlin Reeves-Dyer (Technical Lead at Sunride) installing the igniter into Karman Alpha’s lower stage
Merlin Reeves-Dyer (Technical Lead at Sunride) installing the igniter into Karman Alpha’s lower stage

The first stage was successful, breaking the sound barrier at a speed of mach 1.1 (850 mph). However, technical problems occurred with the second stage, as the motor ignited and was blown out, causing a significant loss in altitude.

Photo of Karman Alpha accelerating along the launch rail shortly after launch
Karman Alpha accelerating along the launch rail shortly after launch

The fault also prevented the parachutes from opening and rather than a steady fall to earth, it rapidly descended and was later recovered from beneath the ground. 

Sunride will reattempt to increase the altitude record next academic year, with Karman Alpha’s successor Karman Bravo.

Photo showing the recovery team pulling the upper stage of the rocket out of the ground
The recovery team pulling the upper stage of the rocket out of the ground

Zefy Pissaki, Project Manager studying MEng Aerospace Engineering with a Year in Industry, said:

“Launching a large rocket like Karman Alpha in California has been a transformative experience for the Sunride team. This is the most advanced rocket we have launched, and the technical achievement to bring it to the pad is not to be understated.”

“We’ve learned an enormous amount from the launch, lessons that we can bring back to the UK in the next academic year. This mission is not a sprint. It is a marathon of lessons to be learnt, step by step with diligent testing, hard work and iteration.” 

Brandon Sharkey one of the Avionics leads studying MEng Aerospace Engineering (Private Pilot Inst) said:

“Watching Karman Alpha go vertical on the pad after a year of hard work was a surreal moment that I'll never forget. To achieve seven rocket launches this year is a massive achievement and is a testament to the dedicated and talented engineers we have on the team. With all the lessons learnt from the Karman Alpha launch, the team is the strongest it's ever been before. I'm very excited for the future, there’s no doubt we’ll be back in the desert soon.“

Photo of the Faculty of Engineering Sunride team
Sunride team at the area where the rocket was recovered

Dr Alistair John, Deputy Director of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Sheffield, who supervised the team, said:

“The Sunride students have worked incredibly hard and it is a huge achievement to get their two-stage rocket launched successfully. They have learnt many lessons and will continue to grow as a team. I can’t wait to see what they achieve over the next few years''

Professor Viktor Fedun, academic lead of the project, said: 

“The collaborative work of Sunride students over the past year on the complicated Karman Alpha rocket and the recent exciting launch in the Mojave desert show their maturity and preparedness for the construction of even more difficult vehicles including with a liquid motor.” 

“The prototype of this motor was recently developed within the SunFire project and succesfully tested during the Race to Space national propulsion competition organised by our the University of Sheffield in collaboration with other UK universities and industry.”

“The SunrIde project demonstrates the leading role of our University of Sheffield and the excellence of our students, within the Faculties of Engineering and Science, who form a dynamic and vibrant community working together to deliver internationally inspiring achievements.” 

“It is a key purpose of space related extracurricular activities to continue to promote and transfer knowledge to the next generation of space scientists and engineers.”   

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