3… 2… 1… Liftoff!

  • 06 May 2024
  • Text by Shanyl Ong, Singapore Propulsion Lab

Have you ever dreamed about building a rocket as a child? 

In June 2023, the Avionics sub-team in the Singapore Propulsion Lab (SPL) participated in the exciting Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) Competition, held at the Mojave Desert, and completed the dream of many in successfully building and launching a rocket into the sky. 

In this article, join Shanyl, the co-lead of the Avionics sub-team, in a recount of his incredibly memorable experience during the competition!

My team and I, after the successful launch of our rocket, and the recovery of our rocket’s lower airframe.
Preparation for the Competition

Prior to joining the Avionics sub-team in the SPL, I was actively involved in robotics competitions and had experiences with some of the relevant hardware that we were using for the Avionics subsystem of the rocket. The subsystem comprises primarily of basic electronics and a hot-wire system that was used for the deployment of our drogue and main chutes. However, even with my prior knowledge on the use of hardware, there were still plenty of hardware specifics which I had to pick up and learn along the way in the months leading up to the competition.

One of the biggest takeaways that I’ve learnt upon joining the team was the importance of redundancies and fail-safes in high-powered rocketry; our rocket’s avionics system had a multitude of redundancies, such as a backup altimeter and other electronics, which were crucial for ensuring a successful rocket launch and recovery.

Our rocket’s avionics bay – partially assembled for testing.

After performing some crucial component testing for the different parts of the rocket in our individual sub-teams a few weeks right before the competition, it was time to pack up the various rocket parts in preparation for our upcoming trip to the United States. Prior to our flight, we had to ship some of the rocket’s components to the US first using delivery services, as some items were simply too bulky or are considered hazardous to be placed on board a typical commercial passenger aircraft.

Trials and Challenges

Even before reaching the launch site in the desert, our team had already run into some issues. Our rocket’s nosecone was held up in San Francisco and did not arrive in Los Angeles along with the team member who was supposed to bring it over. Thankfully, this issue was resolved quite early on and we were able to receive the nosecone with minimal delay. However, that was not the end as we soon learnt that our rocket’s entire lower half, as well as our Ground Support Electronics system, have also been held up by the customs.

Besides the various disruptions in our rocket delivery, the most stressful issue that I encountered was when I realised that our altimeter’s GPS tracker and receiver were still not communicating properly before the competition. This could essentially mean that we might have little or no chance of recovering our rocket after it lands and tracking the rocket’s location in the desert post-landing is challenging, as the rocket can land quite a distance away from the launch site.

Fortunately, the other teams and organisers of the FAR competition were incredibly helpful and understanding of our situation and did their best to provide us with whatever help we needed. The competition organisers also offered to let us use a spare rocket motor and lower airframe that they already had onsite, which we graciously accepted. Our team then spent a full day modifying our newly obtained parts, in order to effectively integrate them into our rocket’s upper half.

Obtaining the spare parts for our rocket.

As the team worked on the new rocket parts, I continued trying to get the GPS system to function properly before launch day. The night before the launch day, a few others and I stayed overnight at the launch site to prepare and ready our rocket for launch. Working through most of the night, I only managed to take a short nap before resuming work.

Working through the night to fix the altimeter’s GPS issue.
Launch Day

Here comes the launch day!

After a long and stressful night at the launch site, trying everything out of desperation, I eventually managed to get the altimeter’s GPS system working in the morning. The issue turned out to be faulty firmware, which required me to flash new firmware to the altimeter. I was ecstatic upon resolving the issue as this meant that our chances of successfully recovering our rocket have increased. The realisation that we now had a fighting chance greatly boosted our team’s morale. Everything was finally coming together. 

Before heading to the launch rail, the team performed a final assembly of the avionics cage and components, followed by some concluding checks.

Final assembly of the avionics cage.

The atmosphere was tense as my team carried our rocket over to the middle of the launch site and loaded it onto the launch rail. I then proceeded to run through our pre-launch checklist, and to armed both altimeters on board. Waiting for the first altimeter to obtain a good GPS fix was quite nerve-wracking, and every second ticking by felt like an eternity!

Waiting for a GPS fix before removing the second arming switch.

After arming the rocket’s avionics, there was just one thing left to do… My teammate inserted the fuse into the rocket’s motor, and we headed to the bunkers to prepare for the launch. While waiting, I begin to set up my photography gear that I packed for the trip, to capture some footages of the launch.

Launch and Recovery

It was time for the final countdown. Moments after the countdown reached zero, we observed the ignition of the motor from the safety of the bunkers. With an earth-shattering burst of sound, we watched the result of our hard work and dedication for the past year soar high into the blue skies of the Mojave Desert.

“3… 2… 1… liftoff!”

Our team was exhilarated! Although a few of us were rather sceptical earlier on whether our rocket would even leave the launch rail, it was truly a miracle to see our team’s rocket successfully launching into the air.

The final part of our mission involved the recovery of the rocket. Based on the receiver’s reading, the team drove deeper into the desert to the last known GPS location of the rocket. After spending about half an hour under the blazing hot desert sun, we finally located our rocket. We also took a few photos before bringing the recovered rocket back to the launch site.

Our rocket’s lower airframe borrowed from the FAR organisers – thankfully intact.
A selfie with the rocket’s avionics bay.
Announcement of Results

During the review and post-mortem analysis of our rocket’s launch, we were pleased to hear that our team had secured the 3rd placing in the competition, despite encountering numerous challenges along the way. We were awarded with the 3rd place trophy for our achievement, a feat that few of us had envisioned when we embarked on this journey.

Our team with the 3rd place trophy.
The 3rd place trophy, against the desert sunset.
Plans for the Future

Despite facing challenges and experiencing some setbacks during the competition, I would consider my experience at the FAR competition last year as the highlight of my 2023. This was undeniably one of the most interesting weeks of my life; I will certainly remember this launch for many years to come!

With our recent experiences and learnings still fresh in our minds, we plan to participate in the upcoming Spaceport America Cup 2025, the world’s largest Intercollegiate Rocketry Competition. Co-organised annually by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA) and Spaceport America, the competition invites rocketry teams from more than 150 institutions all over the world to launch their team’s rockets in Las Cruces, New Mexico. 

Our final sunset in the Mojave Desert.

All photographs in the article were provided by the Singapore Propulsion Lab.

Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=se18OaEo7yQ

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