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March 20th, 2017

Record Setting Rocket Launch by USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory Students

More than 70 members of the USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory trekked to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to launch Fathom II, a rocket designed and manufactured by USC students—and it paid off with the most successful rocket launch in the group’s history.

The March 4 blastoff from Spaceport America was years in the making and built on knowledge passed down since the lab’s founding in 2004. A student-run undergraduate group based at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the lab designs and tests experimental rocketry and propulsion hardware. It’s spawned careers in the commercial space industry at next-generation tech companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

The Fathom II reached a height that was more than double any previous attempts by USC students.

Photo is courtesy of Neil Tewksbury.

The path to the flight of Fathom II wasn’t easy. Fathom II took students about three months to design and manufacture. Students plan and create more than the rocket: They also design and integrate a system of avionics to regularly communicate with ground systems.

After a day-long caravan to the spaceport — the same launch location used by the commercial space company Virgin Galactic — the students tested and retested avionics, the recovery system and the launch pad setup.Why all the extracurricular work? For the love of space, they say. Before Fathom II launched early on a cold Saturday morning in the desert, the students huddled and cheered, “Space! Space! Space!” as their rallying cry.

This particular launch wasn’t a planned “spaceshot” to get to the Karman line — the line of demarcation between space and the Earth’s atmosphere — but its goal was still ambitious. The goal of the vehicle was to reach 180,000 feet in the sky, more than halfway to the lab’s ultimate goal of reaching space. The lab’s previous record was 63,000 feet.

As the space race between campus-based rocket clubs heats up, the criteria for success was strict: Students must design, manufacture, launch and recover their rocket intact. When Fathom II shot upward, it shattered the cinder blocks on the launchpad. At first, the students were silent as they awaited updates from the avionics and launch operations team. Fathom II traveled as fast as four times the speed of sound and then disappeared from view.

After returning to terra firma under a parachute, Fathom II “pinged” the students, letting them know its precise location. It was recovered intact 6.8 miles away from the launchpad. Confirmation was received later that the rocket had reached an altitude of 144,000 feet—the most successful launch in USC lab history.

Article sourced from USC News, authored by Amy Blumenthal.