Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 106

UCT team smashes eight-year
water rocket world altitude record
A team from the Industrial Computational Fluid Dynamics (InCFD) research
group has successfully broken the longstanding Class A water rocket world
altitude record by a massive 33%, achieving a height of 830m.
“It is the first world record in rocketry set by a South
African university that I am aware of,” says Professor
Arnaud Malan, DST/NRF SARChl Chair in Industrial
Computational Fluid Dynamics, who led the research
group. He adds that it is “definitely the first appearance
South Africa has made on the international water
rocket scene.”
The record was formally ratified on 7 October 2015
after international peer review by the Water Rocket
Achievement World Record Association. The previous
record of 623m, set in 2007 by US Water Rockets, has
had no equal for eight years.
Says Malan: “The water rocket competition is very
exciting and environmentally friendly, as it uses
only water and air to reach incredible speeds. The
competition is truly multidisciplinary, and requires
pushing the boundaries of state-of-the-art technology
in areas ranging from mechanical design and lean
manufacture to computer-based mathematical
modelling. It is like the Olympics of water rocketry:
clearly, we are now the undisputed best of the best.”
Water rocketry provides a challenging postgraduate
training platform, says Malan. The technologies it
requires have several applications, including ultra-light
pressure vessels for transport, catapulting cabling and
ropes for construction and even novel thrusters for
space applications.
As with most academic (rather than commercial)
projects, this was done on a shoestring budget: the
rocket was built from off the-shelf-components and
using standard tooling.
The result was a featherweight, record-breaking rocket
that is 2.68m tall, yet weighs less than 1.5kg, including
a flight computer, on-board camera, parachute and
parachute deployment system.
The rocket produced 550kg of thrust – enough to lift a
small car off the ground – and blasted off to 550km/h
in under 0.5 seconds (it could cross a rugby field in
three-quarters of a second). The team made extensive
and creative use of carbon fibre materials, due to their
amazing strength.
The record was
the end of a long
journey for the
research group –
driven by Stuart
Swan and
Malan, with
from Donovan
and William
Liw Tat Man,
all based at
the Department
of Mechanical
Engineering. The
successful ascent came
after two failed attempts
and numerous innovations and
refinements, in a process that tested the
team’s perseverance.
The first attempt – in November 2013 – failed because
the carbon-fibre rocket vessel was leaking air severely.
To resolve this, the team devised a creative and costeffective sealing solution (for which a patent is currently
being applied).
A second attempt, which sported a significantly
improved launch pad – important for the large forces
expected – was aborted when the rocket failed to lift off.
A number of innovations, ranging from pressure-vessel
manufacture to a radical fail-safe parachute deployment
system, led to the development of Ascension III.
On 26 August 2015, the team headed out to Elandsberg
Farms in the Western Cape. The first flight achieved a
height of 835m – 217m higher than the previous record.
To secure the world record, a second launch had to be
completed within two hours of the first. With 10 minutes
to spare, the second launch took place and reached an
altitude of 825m, setting a new world record of 830m.
Story by Carolyn Newton.
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