Open Source Modular Rocket Avionics Package

Cambridge postgraduate student [Adam Greig] helped design a rocket avionics system consisting of a series of disc-shaped PCBs arranged in a stack. There’s a lot that went into the system and you can get a good look at it all through the flickr album.

Built with the help of Cambridge University Spaceflight, the Martlet is a 3-staging sounding rocket that lifts to 15km/50K feet on Cesaroni Pro98 engines. [Adam]’s control system uses several Arm Cortex M4s on various boards rather than having just one brain controlling everything.

Each disc is a module that plays a specific role in the system. There are a couple of power supply boards sporting twin LTC2975 able to supply custom power to a dozen different circuits. The power system has a master control board also sporting an M4. There’s an IMU board with the guidance system — accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope, and barometer, all monitored by an algorithm that computes the rocket’s position and attitude in-flight. There’s a radio board with a GPS receiver and an ISM band radio transceiver for telemetry, as well as a datalogger with 10 thermocouple measurement channels. Engines are controlled by the pyro board which controls firing currents on four different channels. The vertical spacers also serve to transmit power and data to neighboring boards.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out the project’s code and schematics on [Adam]’s GitHub repository.

[Adam] is no stranger to these pages, with his Nerf Vulcan turret published a few years back, as well as his balloon tracking rig published more recently. Photos are CC-SA and can be found in [Adam]’s Flickr feed.

Swedish Rocket Knives

There are trends in YouTube videos among various video producers. A few weeks ago, it was all about fidget spinners until some niche tech blog ran that meme into the ground. Before that, the theme was red-hot knives cutting through stuff. The setup was simple; just heat a knife up with a blowtorch, cut through a tomato or golf ball, hit stop on the high-speed camera, and collect that sweet, sweet YouTube money.

[David] from isn’t like most YouTube stars. He actually knows what he’s doing. When the latest trend of rocket-propelled knives hit the tubes, he knew he could blow this out of the water. He succeeded with a fantastic rocket-propelled machete able to slice through watermelons and fling itself into the woods behind [David]’s house.

Unlike most of the other YouTube stars trying their hand at rocket-powered slicers, [David] is doing this one right. He’s using hobby rocket motors, yes, but they’re reloadable. [David] crafted an engine casing complete with a proper nozzle machined out of stainless for this build. The rocket sled itself is an aluminum bracket bolted to a piece of carbon fiber plate that travels down a rail with the help of four skateboard wheels. A machete is then bolted to the plate, which is propelled down the track a bit faster than 200 km/h.

When it comes to rocket-propelled knives, the word ‘professional’ really doesn’t come into play. This, however, is an amazing piece of craftsmanship that you can check out in the videos below.

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Books You Should Read: IGNITION!

Isaac Asimov described the business of rocket fuel research as “playing footsie with liquids from Hell.” If that piques your interest even a little, even if you do nothing else today, read the first few pages of IGNITION! which is available online for free. I bet you won’t want to stop reading.

IGNITION! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants is about how modern liquid rocket fuel came to be. Written by John D. Clark and published in 1972, the title might at first glance make the book sound terribly dry — it’s not. Liquid rocket fuel made modern rocketry possible. But most of us have no involvement with it at all besides an awareness that it exists, and that makes it easy to take for granted.

Most of us lack any understanding of the fact that its development was the result of a whole lot of hard scientific work, and that work required brilliance (and bravery) and had many frustrating dead ends. It was also an amazingly dangerous business to be in. Isaac Asimov put it this way in the introduction:

“[A]nyone working with rocket fuels is outstandingly mad. I don’t mean garden-variety crazy or a merely raving lunatic. I mean a record-shattering exponent of far-out insanity.

There are, after all, some chemicals that explode shatteringly, some that flame ravenously, some that corrode hellishly, some that poison sneakily, and some that stink stenchily. As far as I know, though, only liquid rocket fuels have all these delightful properties combined into one delectable whole.”

At the time that the book was written and published, most of the work on liquid rocket fuels had been done in the 40’s, 50’s, and first half of the 60’s. There was plenty written about rocketry, but very little about the propellants themselves, and nothing at all written about why these specific substances and not something else were being used. John Clark — having run a laboratory doing propellant research for seventeen years — had a unique perspective of the whole business and took the time to write IGNITION! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants.

Liquid rocket propellant was in two parts: a fuel and an oxidizer. The combination is hypergolic; that is, the two spontaneously ignite and burn upon contact with each other. As an example of the kinds of details that mattered (i.e. all of them), the combustion process had to be rapid and complete. If the two liquids flow into the combustion chamber and ignite immediately, that’s good. If they form a small puddle and then ignite, that’s bad. There are myriad other considerations as well; the fuel must burn at a manageable temperature (so as not to destroy the motor), the energy density of the fuel must be high enough to be a practical fuel in the first place, and so on.

The actual process of discovering exactly what materials to use and how precisely to make them work in a rocket motor was the very essence of the phrase “the devil is in the details.” For every potential solution, there was a mountain of dead-end possibilities that tantalizingly, infuriatingly, almost worked.

The first reliable, workable propellant combination was Aniline and Red Fuming Nitric Acid (RFNA). “It had the one – but magnificent – virtue that it worked,” writes Clark. “Otherwise it was an abomination.” Aniline was difficult to procure, ferociously poisonous and rapidly absorbed through skin, and froze at an inconvenient -6.2 Celsius which limited it to warm weather only. RFNA was fantastically corrosive, and this alone went on to cause no end of problems. It couldn’t be left sitting in a rocket tank waiting to be used for too long, because after a while you wouldn’t have a tank left. It needed to be periodically vented while in storage. Pouring it gave off dense clouds of remarkably toxic gas. This propellant would go on to cause incredibly costly and dangerous problems, but it worked. Still, no one wanted to put up with any of it one moment longer than they absolutely had to. As a result, that combination was not much more than a first step in the whole process; there was plenty of work left to do.

By the mid-sixties, liquid rocket propellant was a solved problem and the propellant community had pretty much worked themselves out of a job. Happily, a result of that work was this book; it captures history and detail that otherwise would simply have disappeared.

Clark has a gift for writing, and the book is easy to read and full of amusing (and eye-widening) anecdotes. Clark doesn’t skimp on the scientific background, but always in an accessible way. It’s interesting, it’s relevant, it’s relatable, and there is plenty to learn about how hard scientific and engineering development actually gets done. Download the PDF onto your favorite device. You’ll find it well worth the handful of evenings it takes to read through it.

Launch Pad for Air-Water Rockets is Good Clean Fun for STEM Students

We have fond memories of air-water rockets, which were always a dime store purchase for summertime fun in the pool. Despite strict guidance from mom to shoot them only straight up, the first target was invariably a brother or friend on the other side of the pool. No eyes were lost, and it was good clean fun that was mercifully free of educational value during summer break.

But now a teacher has gone and ruined all that by making an air-water rocket launching pad for his STEM students. Just kidding — [Robert Hart] must be the coolest teacher in Australia when Friday launch days roll around. [Mr. Hart] wanted a quick and easy way to safely launch air-water rockets and came up with a pretty clever system. The core task is to pump air into the partially filled water bottle and then release it cleanly. [Robert] uses quick-disconnect fittings, with the female coupling rigged to a motor through a bicycle brake cable. The control box has a compressor, the release motor, and a wireless alarm remote, all powered by a 12-volt battery. With the male coupling glued to the cap of a bottle acting as a nozzle and a quick, clean release, flights are pretty spectacular.

There are many ways to launch an air-water rocket, from the simple to the complex. [Robert]’s build leans toward the complex, but looks robust enough for repeated use and makes the launch process routine so the kids can concentrate on the aerodynamics. Or to just enjoy being outdoors and watching things fly.

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Building Homebrew VTOL Rockets

No one can deny what SpaceX and Blue Origin are doing is a feat of technological wizardry. Building a rocket that takes off vertically, goes into space, and lands back on the pad is an astonishing technical achievement that is literally rocket science. However, both SpaceX and Blue Origin have a few things going for them. They have money, first of all. They’re building big rockets, so there’s a nice mass to thrust cube law efficiency bump. They’re using liquid fueled engines that can be throttled.

[Joe Barnard] isn’t working with the same constraints SpaceX and Blue Origin have. He’s still building a rocket that can take off and land vertically, but he’s doing it the hard way. He’s building VTOL model rockets. Most of the parts are 3D printed. And he’s using solid motors you can buy at a hobby shop. This is the hard way of doing things, and [Joe] is seeing some limited success with his designs.

While the rockets coming out of Barnard Propulsion Systems look like models of SpaceX’s test vehicles, there’s a lot more here than looks. [Joe] is using a thrust vectoring system — basically mounting the Estes motor in a gimbal attached to a pair of servos. This allows the rockets to fly straight up without fins or even the launch rod used to get the rocket up to speed in the first few millseconds of flight. This is active stabilization of a model rocket, with the inevitable comments of ITAR violations following soon afterward.

Taking off vertically is one thing, but [Joe] is also trying to land his rockets vertically. Each rocket he’s built has a second Estes motor used only for landing. During descent, the onboard microcontroller calculates the speed, altitude, and determines if it’s safe to attempt a vertical landing. If the second motor has sufficient impulse to make velocity and altitude equal zero at the same time, the landing legs deploy and the rocket hopefully makes a soft touchdown in the grass.

While [Joe] hasn’t quite managed to pull off a vertical takeoff and landing with black powder motors quite yet, he’s documenting and livestreaming all of his attempts. You can check out the latest one from a week ago below.

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3D Printed Rockets are a Gas

We’ve probably all made matchstick rockets as kids. And around here anything that even vaguely looks like a rocket will get some imaginary flight time. But [austiwawa] is making some really cool 3D printed rockets that use common CO2 cartridges as a propellant. You can see them in action in the video below.

You might think just sticking a CO2 cylinder in a 3D printed jacket isn’t such a big deal, but [austiwawa] really went the extra mile. He read up on how to make the rocket stable (by manipulating the center of gravity versus the center of pressure) and explains what he had to do to get the rockets flying like you’d expect.

In addition, the launch tube is pretty interesting. A 3D printed part holds a sharp point and a spring. You lock the spring and when released it punches a clean hole in the propellant casing. The actual tube is a long piece of PVC pipe. From the video, it looks like these little rockets fly pretty high.

Judging from the video, the rocket body and launcher came from TinkerCAD. The way [austiwawa] put the fins on was both simple and clever.

Of course, you could also use Coke and propane, if you like. We’ve also seen some pretty cool setups with compressed air. Check out the rockets in action after the break,

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Ruggedizing A Cheap Camera For Spacecraft Testing

Name the countries that house a manned space program. In order of arrival in space, USSR/Russian Federation, United States of America, People’s Republic of China. And maybe one day, Denmark. OK, not the Danish government. But that doesn’t stop the country having a manned space program, in the form of Copenhagen Suborbitals. As the tagline on their website has it: “We’re 50 geeks building and flying our own rockets. One of us will fly into space“. If that doesn’t catch the attention of Hackaday readers, nothing will.

For their rocket testing they need a lot of video feeds, and for that they use cheap Chinese GoPro clones. The problem with these (and we suspect many other cameras) is that when subjected to the temperature and vibration of being strapped to a rocket, they cease to work. And since even nonprofit spaceflight engineers are experts at solving problems, they’ve ruggedized the cameras to protect them from vibration and provide adequate heatsinking.

The heat issue is addressed by removing the camera case and attaching its metal chassis directly to a heatsink that forms the end of an extruded aluminium case. Vibration was causing the camera SD cards to come loose, so these are soldered into their sockets. Power is provided by a pair of 18650 cells with a switching regulator to provide internal power, and another to allow the unit to be charged from a wide range of input voltages. A PCB houses both the regulators and sockets for cable distribution. There is even a socket on top of the case to allow a small monitor to be mounted as a viewfinder. Along the way they’ve created a ruggedized camera that we think could have many applications far beyond rocket testing. Maybe they should sell kits!

We’ve covered Copenhagen Suborbitals before quite a few times, from their earliest news back in 2010, through a look at their liquid-fueled engine, to a recent successful rocket launch. We want to eventually report on this project achieving its aim.

Thanks [Morten] for the tip.