When They Electrified Christmas – IEEE Spectrum
23 mins read

When They Electrified Christmas – IEEE Spectrum

When They Electrified Christmas – IEEE Spectrum

We’re in a brand new period of spaceflight: The nationwide house companies are now not the one recreation on the town, and house is changing into extra accessible. Rockets constructed by business gamers like
Blue Origin at the moment are bringing personal residents into orbit. That mentioned, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic are all backed by billionaires with monumental sources, they usually have all expressed intentions to promote flights for a whole bunch of hundreds to thousands and thousands of {dollars}. Copenhagen Suborbitals has a really completely different imaginative and prescient. We imagine that spaceflight ought to be accessible to anybody who’s prepared to place within the effort and time.

Copenhagen Suborbitals was based in 2008 by a self-taught engineer and an area architect who had beforehand labored for NASA. From the start, the mission was clear: crewed spaceflight. Both founders left the group in 2014, however by then the mission had about 50 volunteers and loads of momentum.

The group took as its founding precept that the challenges concerned in constructing a crewed spacecraft on a budget are all engineering issues that may be solved, separately, by a diligent workforce of good and devoted folks. When folks ask me why we’re doing this, I typically reply, “As a result of we will.”

Volunteers use a tank of argon gasoline [left] to fill a tube inside which engine parts are fused collectively. The workforce lately manufactured a gasoline tank for the Spica rocket [right] of their workshop.

Our aim is to succeed in the Kármán line, which defines the boundary between Earth’s environment and outer house, 100 kilometers above sea degree. The astronaut who reaches that altitude can have a number of minutes of silence and weightlessness after the engines reduce off and can take pleasure in a wide ranging view. However it will not be a straightforward trip. In the course of the descent, the capsule will expertise exterior temperatures of 400 °C and g-forces of three.5 because it hurtles via the air at speeds of as much as 3,500 kilometers per hour.

I joined the group in 2011, after the group had already moved from a maker house inside a decommissioned ferry to a hangar close to the Copenhagen waterfront. Earlier that 12 months, I had watched Copenhagen Suborbital’s first launch, through which the HEAT-1X rocket took off from a cell launch platform within the Baltic Sea—however sadly crash-landed within the ocean when most of its parachutes didn’t deploy. I delivered to the group some fundamental information of sports activities parachutes gained throughout my years of skydiving, which I hoped would translate into useful expertise.

The workforce’s subsequent milestone got here in 2013, after we efficiently launched the Sapphire rocket, our first rocket to incorporate steerage and navigation programs. Its navigation pc used a 3-axis accelerometer and a 3-axis gyroscope to maintain monitor of its location, and its thrust-control system saved the rocket on the right trajectory by transferring 4 servo-mounted copper jet vanes that have been inserted into the exhaust meeting.

We imagine that spaceflight ought to be accessible to anybody who’s prepared to place within the effort and time.

The HEAT-1X and the Sapphire rockets have been fueled with a mix of strong polyurethane and liquid oxygen. We have been eager to develop a bipropellant rocket engine that blended liquid ethanol and liquid oxygen, as a result of such liquid-propellant engines are each environment friendly and highly effective. The HEAT-2X rocket, scheduled to launch in late 2014, was meant to show that know-how. Sadly, its engine went up in flames, actually, in a static check firing some weeks earlier than the scheduled launch. That check was presupposed to be a managed 90-second burn; as an alternative, due to a welding error, a lot of the ethanol gushed into the combustion chamber in just some seconds, leading to a large conflagration. I used to be standing just a few hundred meters away, and even from that distance I felt the warmth on my face.

The HEAT-2X rocket’s engine was rendered inoperable, and the mission was canceled. Whereas it was a serious disappointment, we realized some useful classes. Till then, we might been basing our designs on our current capabilities—the instruments in our workshop and the folks on the mission. The failure pressured us to take a step again and take into account what new applied sciences and expertise we would want to grasp to succeed in our finish aim. That rethinking led us to design the comparatively small Nexø I and Nexø II rockets to show key applied sciences such because the parachute system, the bipropellant engine, and the strain regulation meeting for the tanks.

For the Nexø II launch in August 2018, our launch website was 30 okaym east of Bornholm, Denmark’s easternmost island, in part of the Baltic Sea utilized by the Danish navy for army workout routines. We left Bornholm’s Nexø harbor at 1 a.m. to attain the designated patch of ocean in time for a 9 a.m. launch, the time accredited by Swedish air visitors management. (Whereas our boats have been in worldwide waters, Sweden has oversight of the airspace above that a part of the Baltic Sea.) Lots of our crew members had spent the whole earlier day testing the rocket’s numerous programs and bought no sleep earlier than the launch. We were operating on espresso.

When the Nexø II blasted off, separating neatly from the launch tower, all of us cheered. The rocket continued on its trajectory, jettisoning its nostril cone when it reached its apogee of 6,500 meters, and sending telemetry information again to our mission management ship all of the whereas. Because it started to descend, it first deployed its ballute, a balloon-like parachute used to stabilize spacecraft at excessive altitudes, after which deployed its primary parachute, which introduced it gently right down to the ocean waves.

In 2018, the Nexø II rocket launched efficiently [left] and returned safely to the Baltic Sea [right].

The launch introduced us one step nearer to mastering the logistics of launching and touchdown at sea. For this launch, we have been additionally testing our means to foretell the rocket’s path. I created a mannequin that estimated a splashdown 4.2 km east of the launch platform; it really landed 4.0 km to the east. This managed water touchdown—our first below a completely inflated parachute—was an necessary proof of idea for us, since a comfortable touchdown is an absolute crucial for any crewed mission.

A photo shows a metal engine nozzle with a jet of fire coming out of one end.
This previous April, the workforce examined its new gasoline injectors in a static engine check. Carsten Olsen

The Nexø II’s engine, which we known as the BPM5, was one of many few parts we hadn’t machined solely in our workshop; a Danish firm made essentially the most difficult engine components. However when these components arrived in our workshop shortly earlier than the launch date, we realized that the exhaust nozzle was somewhat bit misshapen. We did not have time to order a brand new half, so one among our volunteers, Jacob Larsen, used a sledgehammer to pound it into form. The engine did not look fairly—we nicknamed it the Franken-Engine—however it labored. For the reason that Nexø II’s flight, we have test-fired that engine greater than 30 instances, typically pushing it past its design limits, however we’ve not killed it but.

The Spica astronaut’s 15-minute trip to the celebrities would be the product of greater than 20 years of labor.

That mission additionally demonstrated our new dynamic strain regulation (DPR) system, which helped us management the stream of gasoline into the combustion chamber. The Nexø I had used an easier system known as strain blowdown, through which the gasoline tanks have been one-third stuffed with pressurized gasoline to drive the liquid gasoline into the chamber. With DPR, the tanks are stuffed to capability with gasoline and linked by a set of management valves to a separate tank of helium gasoline below excessive strain. That setup lets us regulate the quantity of helium gasoline flowing into the tanks to push gasoline into the combustion chamber, enabling us to program in numerous quantities of thrust at completely different factors through the rocket’s flight.

The 2018 Nexø II mission proved that our design and know-how have been basically sound. It was time to begin engaged on the human-rated
Spica rocket.

A computer rendering shows a rocket with the words Spica and Copenhagen Suborbitals on it flying above the clouds.
Copenhagen Suborbitals hopes to ship an astronaut aloft in its Spica rocket in a couple of decade. Caspar Stanley

With its crew capsule, the Spica rocket will measure 13 meters excessive and can have a gross liftoff weight of 4,000 kilograms, of which 2,600 okayg will likely be gasoline. Will probably be, by a major margin, the biggest rocket ever constructed by amateurs.

A computer rendering shows a metal rocket engine.
The Spica rocket will use the BPM100 engine, which the workforce is at the moment manufacturing. Thomas Pedersen

Its engine, the 100-kN
BPM100, makes use of applied sciences we mastered for the BPM5, with just a few enhancements. Just like the prior design, it makes use of regenerative cooling through which among the propellant passes via channels across the combustion chamber to restrict the engine’s temperature. To push gasoline into the chamber, it makes use of a mix of the straightforward strain blowdown technique within the first section of flight and the DPR system, which supplies us finer management over the rocket’s thrust. The engine components will likely be chrome steel, and we hope to make most of them ourselves out of rolled sheet steel. The trickiest half, the double-curved “throat” part that connects the combustion chamber to the exhaust nozzle, requires computer-controlled machining gear that we do not have. Fortunately, we’ve got good business contacts who will help out.

One main change was the swap from the Nexø II’s showerhead-style gasoline injector to a coaxial-swirl gasoline injector. The showerhead injector had about 200 very small gasoline channels. It was robust to fabricate, as a result of if one thing went incorrect after we have been making a type of channels—say, the drill bought caught—we needed to throw the entire thing away. In a coaxial-swirl injector, the liquid fuels come into the chamber as two rotating liquid sheets, and because the sheets collide, they’re atomized to create a propellant that combusts. Our swirl injector makes use of about 150 swirler parts, that are assembled into one construction. This modular design ought to be simpler to fabricate and check for high quality assurance.

A photo shows two metallic circles. The one on the left is made of brass and has 19 large holes on its front. The one on the right is made of steel and has dozens of tiny holes on its front.
The BPM100 engine will exchange an outdated showerhead-style gasoline injector [right] with a coaxial-swirl injector [left], which will likely be simpler to fabricate.Thomas Pedersen

In April of this 12 months, we ran static checks of a number of forms of injectors. We first did a trial with a well-understood showerhead injector to ascertain a baseline, then examined brass swirl injectors made by conventional machine milling in addition to metal swirl injectors made by 3D printing. We have been happy general with the efficiency of each swirl injectors, and we’re nonetheless analyzing the information to find out which functioned higher. Nevertheless, we did see some
combustion instability—specifically, some oscillation within the flames between the injector and the engine’s throat, a probably harmful phenomenon. We have now a good suggestion of the reason for these oscillations, and we’re assured that just a few design tweaks can remedy the issue.

A man seated at a table holds a circular brass object toward the camera. The brass object has 19 large holes and has black char marks across its front.
Volunteer Jacob Larsen holds a brass gasoline injector that carried out effectively in a 2021 engine check.Carsten Olsen

We’ll quickly start constructing a full-scale BPM100 engine, which is able to finally incorporate a brand new steerage system for the rocket. Our prior rockets, inside their engines’ exhaust nozzles, had steel vanes that we’d transfer to vary the angle of thrust. However these vanes generated drag throughout the exhaust stream and lowered efficient thrust by about 10 p.c. The brand new design has
gimbals that swivel the whole engine forwards and backwards to regulate the thrust vector. As additional help for our perception that robust engineering issues may be solved by good and devoted folks, our gimbal system was designed and examined by a 21-year-old undergraduate pupil from the Netherlands named Jop Nijenhuis, who used the gimbal design as his thesis mission (for which he bought the very best doable grade).

We’re utilizing the identical steerage, navigation, and management (GNC) computer systems that we used within the Nexø rockets. One new problem is the crew capsule; as soon as the capsule separates from the rocket, we’ll have to regulate every half by itself to carry them each again right down to Earth within the desired orientation. When separation happens, the GNC computer systems for the 2 parts might want to perceive that the parameters for optimum flight have modified. However from a software program standpoint, that is a minor downside in comparison with these we have solved already.

A woman is seated in front of a computer and a table that has a large drone on it.
Bianca Diana works on a drone she’s utilizing to check a brand new steerage system for the Spica rocket.Carsten Olsen

My specialty is parachute design. I’ve labored on the ballute, which is able to inflate at an altitude of 70 km to sluggish the crewed capsule throughout its high-speed preliminary descent, and the principle parachutes, which is able to inflate when the capsule is 4 km above the ocean. We have examined each varieties by having skydivers leap out of planes with the parachutes, most lately in a
2019 check of the ballute. The pandemic pressured us to pause our parachute testing, however we should always resume quickly.

A photo shows a camera descending; itu2019s attached to a parachute made of many thin orange ribbons.
For the parachute that may deploy from the Spica’s booster rocket, the workforce examined a small prototype of a ribbon parachute.Mads Stenfatt

For the drogue parachute that may deploy from the booster rocket, my first prototype was primarily based on a design known as Supersonic X, which is a parachute that appears considerably like a flying onion and may be very simple to make. Nevertheless, I reluctantly switched to ribbon parachutes, which have been extra totally examined in high-stress conditions and located to be extra secure and sturdy. I say “reluctantly” as a result of I knew how a lot work it will be to assemble such a tool. I first made a 1.24-meter-diameter parachute that had 27 ribbons going throughout 12 panels, every hooked up in three locations. So on that small prototype, I needed to sew 972 connections. A full-scale model can have 7,920 connection factors. I am attempting to maintain an open thoughts about this problem, however I additionally would not object if additional testing reveals the Supersonic X design to be adequate for our functions.

We have examined two crew capsules in previous missions: the Tycho Brahe in 2011 and the Tycho Deep Area in 2012. The next-generation Spica crew capsule will not be spacious, however it will likely be sufficiently big to carry a single astronaut, who will stay seated for the 15 minutes of flight (and for 2 hours of preflight checks). The primary spacecraft we’re constructing is a heavy metalboilerplate” capsule, a fundamental prototype that we’re utilizing to reach at a sensible format and design. We’ll additionally use this mannequin to check hatch design, general resistance to strain and vacuum, and the aerodynamics and hydrodynamics of the form, as we wish the capsule to splash down into the ocean with minimal shock to the astronaut inside. As soon as we’re proud of the boilerplate design, we’ll make the light-weight flight model.

Two men stand on either side of a seated woman wearing an orange flight suit. The man on the left holds an orange flight helmet.
Copenhagen Suborbitals at the moment has three astronaut candidates for its first flight: from left, Mads Stenfatt, Anna Olsen, and Carsten Olsen. Mads Stenfatt

Three members of the Copenhagen Suborbitals workforce are at the moment candidates to be the astronaut in our first crewed mission—me, Carsten Olsen, and his daughter, Anna Olsen. All of us perceive and settle for the dangers concerned in flying into house on a do-it-yourself rocket. In our day-to-day operations, we astronaut candidates do not obtain any particular remedy or coaching. Our one additional duty to date has been sitting within the crew capsule’s seat to verify its dimensions. Since our first crewed flight remains to be a decade away, the candidate listing might effectively change. As for me, I believe there’s appreciable glory in simply being a part of the mission and serving to to construct the rocket that may carry the primary beginner astronaut into house. Whether or not or not I find yourself being that astronaut, I will eternally be pleased with our achievements.

A computer rendering shows a cutaway of a small crew capsule for a spacecraft. Inside the capsule is a person seated in a chair.
The astronaut will go to house inside a small crew capsule on the Spica rocket. The astronaut will stay seated for the 15-minute flight (and for the 2-hour flight verify earlier than). Carsten Brandt

Individuals might surprise how we get by on a shoestring funds of about $100,000 a 12 months—notably once they study that half of our earnings goes to paying lease on our workshop. We hold prices down by shopping for commonplace off-the-shelf components as a lot as doable, and after we want customized designs, we’re fortunate to work with corporations that give us beneficiant reductions to help our mission. We launch from worldwide waters, so we do not have to pay a launch facility. Once we journey to Bornholm for our launches, every volunteer pays his or her personal means, and we keep in a sports activities membership close to the harbor, sleeping on mats on the ground and showering within the altering rooms. I typically joke that our funds is about one-tenth what NASA spends on espresso. But it might be sufficient to do the job.

We had meant to launch Spica for the primary time in the summertime of 2021, however our schedule was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed our workshop for a lot of months. Now we’re hoping for a check launch in the summertime of 2022, when situations on the Baltic Sea will likely be comparatively tame. For this preliminary check of Spica, we’ll fill the gasoline tanks solely partway and can goal to ship the rocket to a peak of round 30 to 50 km.

If that flight is a hit, within the subsequent check, Spica will carry extra gasoline and soar larger. If the 2022 flight fails, we’ll work out what went incorrect, repair the issues, and take a look at once more. It is exceptional to suppose that the Spica astronaut’s eventual 15-minute trip to the celebrities would be the product of greater than 20 years of labor. However we all know our
supporters are counting down till the historic day when an beginner astronaut will climb aboard a do-it-yourself rocket and wave goodbye to Earth, able to take a large leap for DIY-kind.

This text seems within the December 2021 print problem as “The First Crowdfunded Astronaut.”

A Skydiver Who Sews

A man attached to  a parachute in the sky.


Mads Stenfatt first contacted Copenhagen Suborbitals with some constructive criticism. In 2011, whereas images of the DIY rocketeers’ newest rocket launch, he had observed a digital camera mounted near the parachute equipment. Stenfatt despatched an e-mail detailing his concern—specifically, {that a} parachute’s traces might simply get tangled across the digital camera. “The reply I bought was basically, ‘If you are able to do higher, come be a part of us and do it your self,’ ” he remembers. That is how he turned a volunteer with the world’s solely crowdfunded crewed spaceflight program.

As an beginner skydiver, Stenfatt knew the fundamental mechanics of parachute packing and deployment. He began serving to Copenhagen Suborbitals design and pack parachutes, and some years later he took over the job of stitching the chutes as effectively. He had by no means used a stitching machine earlier than, however he realized shortly over nights and weekends at his eating room desk.

Considered one of his favourite initiatives was the design of a high-altitude parachute for the Nexø II rocket, launched in 2018. Whereas engaged on a prototype and puzzling over the design of the air intakes, he discovered himself on a Danish stitching web site brassiere parts. He determined to make use of bra underwires to stiffen the air intakes and hold them open, which labored fairly effectively. Although he ultimately went in a unique design route, the episode is a basic instance of the Copenhagen Suborbitals ethos: Collect inspiration and sources from wherever you discover them to get the job executed.

At this time, Stenfatt serves as lead parachute designer, frequent spokesperson, and astronaut candidate. He additionally continues to skydive in his spare time, with a whole bunch of jumps to his identify. Having ample expertise zooming down via the sky, he is intently interested in what it will really feel prefer to go the opposite route.

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