Last month, the Portland State Aerospace Society (PSAS), a student venture at Portland State College, launched a rocket out in the Oregon desert, on 19th July 2015 to be exact. The rocket soared almost five kilometers into the sky—an impressive feat, however that is just the start for PSAS. The group has its eyes set much higher.
In the video, you see the ground rapidly zoom away as the rocket, dubbed “LV2.3”, shoots into the sky. It is a beautiful sight—and one that was captured unintentionally.
“The digital camera falling out of the rocket was accidental,” chuckles Andrew Greenberg, an adjunct professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at PSU who’s involved in the club. “In this case, the plastic cracked and the camera came out at Mach 1.” The Raspberry Pi-based camera was supposed to record from the side of the rocket’s payload module. “3D-printing plastic isn’t necessarily great for rockets, it turns out.”
The membership’s targets are loftier than just getting just a few kilometers above the Earth. When asked about the objective of the club, Greenberg is direct. They want to put a nano-satellite into orbit.
“We try to build as much as we can,” says Greenberg. When you’re trying to construct a space-bound rocket, the to-do list is spectacular. “We’re building our own avionics system. We are making our own software-defined radio GPS system. We’re building our own Ethernet-based systems. We’re using WiFi as a long distance telemetry on the amateur radio band.”
The plan to construct a nano satellite (particularly a CubeSat) came to the group during all of this tinkering. After an inspired burst of DIYing, they realized their computer for getting the rocket to space was fairly close to functioning as a tiny satellite. Now they had to figure out how to give it a second life in orbit.
Usually CubeSats function as small satellites that do their business only after they’re in orbit. They’re deployed out into space as a ten centimeter cube that then conducts scientific research within some particularly outlined parameters. It doesn’t usually deal with avionics for a rocket. However PSAS’s CubeSat does both the work. “Our CubeSat has an Ethernet peripheral called ‘a rocket,’ and it flies up and drops itself off and throws itself into space and then it becomes a satellite,” Greenberg says. “All that is, is a change of software, right?”
“WHEN YOU’RE TALKING ORBITAL-CLASS ROCKET, THERE ARE A BILLION THINGS TO DO TO PROVE IT’S SAFE.”
The technological hurdles are one thing. The bigger impediment keeping Portland State Aerospace Society from reaching orbit? “Think ‘cash and lawyers,'” says Greenberg. Including the Portland State Aerospace Society, there are other amateur teams that might potentially put something into orbit like the Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group and Delft Aerospace Rocket Engineering in the Netherlands. Actually, the Civilian Space eXploration Team (CSXT) made it a hundred and fifteen kilometers into the sky (which is, by all definitions, space) in 2004. However there’s no amateur group putting stuff in orbit just yet.
All of them face the same issues of international law, regulatory compliance, safety evaluation, and a litany of different hurdles. “As soon as you begin talking orbital-class rocket, there are a billion issues you need to do to prove that your rocket is safe,” Greenberg says. “Minneapolis-St. Paul does not like it when you drop your first stage on them.”
These are complex issues even for massive corporations like SpaceX. It is even harder for a small group of hobbyists. “If someone drops out of the sky and says, ‘Here is $10 million, and here is a cadre of attorneys for you to use,’ we would happily do it,” says Greenberg. “But we do not expect that to happen.” They currently make do on between $3,000 and $10,000 a year in fundraising, however sooner or later these hurdles will become an issue that will require serious cash to solve. For now, the group chooses to focus on better rockets & avionics.
Then again, Greenberg and the Portland State Aerospace Society have a history of overcoming setbacks. In 2005, they had been at the cutting edge of amateur rocketry. “We had the world’s most superior avionics system,” Greenberg says. “It was a Linux-based computer that used the controller area network that is used in automobiles. It had every thing our current rocket has, but it was way ahead of its time.” He is fairly sure it was the first time, for example, people had used WiFi in rockets.
“We launched it, and it worked beautifully. Everything we thought would fail, like the software and the radios, worked perfectly.” The one piece that did fail? The parachute. “We lawn darted that thing at close to Mach 1 into the ground,” he laughs.
The loss of the rocket set the group back badly—they did not launch another rocket for 4 years—but they learned from their mistakes. “We construct three of every thing, so if we lose one thing that is okay.” If the group can recover from smashing up one of their best rockets, who’s to say they could not figure out the attorneys and regulatory angle as well?
In the meantime, the group has their hands full with a brand new “LV3” airframe they’re hoping could eventually attain a hundred kilometers (or about sixty two miles). “100 kilometers is the magic number,” Greenberg says giddily. “You get to say you are in space if you have gone 100 kilometers.”
They’ve already made it 5 kilometers. What’s one other ninety five?