In their first time participating in the prestigious Spaceport America Cup (SAC), the UNSW Rocketry Team came third in the 30,000ft category and won the Best Video Challenge. The team managed to reach an altitude of 27,233 feet with their rocket Archangel.

The Spaceport America Cup is the largest international intercollegiate rocket engineering competition in the world. Over 1,700 students from 6 continents, representing more than 150 institutions, gathered in New Mexico in June 2023 to collaborate and compete. 

The UNSW team entered in the commercial off the shelf motor 30,000ft category and were up against 22 other teams. Their rocket Archangel was over 4 meters tall and primarily made of carbon fibre, manufactured in the workshop of one of the team’s primary sponsors, McConaghy Boats. 

“Inside the rocket were two flight computers measuring barometric and inertial data, which tells us how high the rocket flew. These Computers also trigger the separation of the rocket sections, allowing the parachutes out. We also use a GPS telemetry unit to tell us where the rocket is at all times,” said UNSW Rocketry team President Madison Weekes, 5th year Aerospace Engineering student at UNSW.

While he is happy with the outcome, Weekes believes the team could have reached an altitude up to 29,000 feet if it wasn’t for a stroke of bad luck.

“The nose cone incurred some damage on the way to New Mexico. We repainted it, but that turned out to be a bad decision, as the paint hadn’t fully cured by the time we launched. It was so hot out in New Mexico that we believe the paint cooked and boiled on the launch pad, increasing our drag significantly. You live and you learn though, and this was a valuable lesson,” he said.

The main goal of the competition is to launch the rocket as close to 30,000ft as possible, with points deducted from the flight score for each meter below or over the target altitude. There are also points for a variety of other categories, such as for a technical report, that outlines the design process, the manufacturing process and all the technical details of the rocket, and for progress updates throughout the design process.

The UNSW Rocketry team scored particularly high on build quality and design quality, respectively 112 and 108 points out of 120. They also gained 100 bonus points for being able to launch on the first day of competition and 150 points for recovering their rocket without damage.

Associate Professor Danielle Moreau of the UNSW School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Academic Advisor of the team, is incredibly proud.

"The students fearlessly embraced this unique challenge and achieved success. Their launch at SAC represents the culmination of years of effort, harnessing the diverse skills, unwavering passion, and determination of our team members,” she said.

“I am honored to support our students in developing the technical expertise, practical skills, and professional network necessary to become future leaders of the Australian aerospace industry.”

The UNSW Rocketry team has been building towards competing at the SAC for almost two years, and the journey has not been without challenges.

 “When I started out leading the team two years ago, the team had almost no funding. The annual budget that we were given was nowhere near enough to do anything we needed to do. We needed to convince the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering and the Faculty that we were a good investment, and when they decided to fund us, we needed to make sure we delivered,” said Weekes.

“Building the rocket was a technical challenge, but the technical teams did an outstanding job of testing and prototyping, and put great effort into the design and simulation.”

After completing the rocket, the team worked with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to get a temporary restricted airspace implemented and ground area approval in place for a test flight at White Cliffs, NSW. Despite being launched from a test site at sea level, which has a denser atmosphere than the launch site of the SAC in New Mexico, Archangel successfully reached an altitude of 24,500ft.

“The test flight altitude was acceptable, but we knew we had to drop some mass. As we were undershooting rather than overshooting, we decided to drop the air brake system, which extends flaps out of the rocket body to slow it down if it thinks it’s going to pass the target altitude of 30,000 feet. Removing that system lowered the Rocket mass by about 1.5 kilograms,” said Weekes.

Archangel launching at White Cliffs UNSW

Weekes is proud of how far the team has come.

“We’ve taken on a magnitude of administrational, technical and financial obstacles and managed to overcome each of them. We were over the moon to see all the hard work pay off and are incredibly grateful to the University and the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering for believing in us and making our trip to the US possible,” he said.

“The whole team has come together, and it’s amazing to able to say that we made a real difference to the rocketry team at UNSW. I strongly feel we have made the University proud,” said Weekes.

The future is bright for the UNSW Rocketry team. Realising they have a huge advantage by having access to a test launch site, the team plans to continue working on a design and testing it until they get to almost exactly 30,000 feet.

“The next time we participate in the Spaceport America Cup, we’ll have a really, really strong chance of winning,” said Weekes.

“We are also in talks with the university and with Endeavour Aerospace, a startup by some Rocketry Team members, about commissioning a small production facility in White Cliffs, where we can make our own rocket propellant. This will enable us to make bigger motors which will pave the way to a space launch project in late 2024 or early 2025. We’re really excited for that, and the university is being very supportive.”

The members of the Rocketry team who travelled to the US to compete in the SAC are Madison Weekes, Ray Clark, Erik Mueller, Liam Grieve, Arda Bicer, Margarita Piperias, Ray He, Aayush Thapa, Oliver Pelham-Burn, Lachlan Bramble, Kevin Shi and Steven Watts. The team is supported by Academic Advisor A/Prof. Danielle Moreau.

They would like to thank their key sponsors, Paradice Investment Management, McConaghy Boats and the NSW Government, and also Nathan Harvey, for allowing them to test launch on his property.