First Entirely Student Designed and Built Rocket Reaches Space

A rocket by the University of Southern California Rocket Propulsion Laboratory just breached the Kármán line.
Loukia Papadopoulos

A team from the University of Southern California (USC) Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (RPL) launched the first-ever student designed and built rocket past the boundary of space. They also successfully recovered their 8-inch diameter, 13-foot tall space vehicle 12 miles downrange from where they launched it. 


90% certainty

Internal analysis of the flight data indicated with near certainty that the rocket, called Traveler IV, had breached the Kármán line. “We can say with 90 percent certainty that RPL’s latest spaceshot, Traveler IV, passed the Kármán line, the recognized boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space,” said in a statement Neil Tewskbury, lead operations officer at RPL.

The rocket was reported to have reached an altitude of 340,000 feet. "Traveler IV rapidly accelerated at over 17g’s to its top speed of 4970 ft/s, or Mach 5.1, over the course of its 11.5 second motor burn, then cruised the remaining 140 seconds, until reaching its maximum altitude of 340,000 feet or 103.6 kilometers," revealed the statement.

RPL’s avionics system recorded the flight using its onboard sensors. It also deployed the vehicle’s parachutes at apogee, allowing the rocket to safely fall back down to earth. The flight lasted a total of 11 minutes.

"After nearly 15 years and probably over a million hours of work, RPL has finally achieved its goal of being the first student group to launch the first student designed and built rocket past the Karman line," lead engineer Dennis Smalling said.

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Fourth time is the charm

The event was the university's fourth attempt to breach the boundary of space and saw more than 80 undergraduates participate. RPL was founded in 2004 by student Ian Whittinghill.

The group is a great opportunity for students to learn both about building rockets and collaboration. “People often ask why USC encourages students to participate in building amateur rockets,” said David Barnhart, USC Viterbi research professor in astronautics and director of the Space Engineering Research Center.

“Besides the incredible hands-on experience that translates what they learn in the classroom to a functioning rocket, this is typically the first time many have built and created something this large as a team. The fact they do it themselves and benefit from a unique introduction to astronautics provides incredible motivation and excitement that lasts throughout their careers.”

The RPL team is now already working on a liquid-fueled vehicle, CubeSat deployment, active rocket stabilization, and new solid engine designs.

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