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Science

Danish amateur rocket organization regroups after failed launch

Copenhagen Suborbitals launch from the Baltic Sea failed after a hairdryer was left unplugged, which was meant to blow hot air at a valve. The group now says it will re-schedule the same test launch for June 2011.

Tycho Brahe

The rocket, Tycho Brahe, was named after the famed 16th-century Danish astronomer

Ten days ago, a Danish team of amateur rocket scientists tried to launch the world's first amateur space-rocket from a platform in the Baltic Sea, but it didn't go quite as expected. The launch failed.

After years of research and planning, Copenhagen Suborbitals, was understandably disappointed when the launch failed. The team is now re-evaluating its future plans and figuring out where to go from here.

Kristian von Bengtson, one of two leaders of the group organizing the launch, Copenhagen Suborbitals, is a former NASA scientist. He was the one directing the operation, and the one to push the launch button.

"Well I pushed the button when we came to T-zero meaning that the rocket was supposed to actually launch from sealevel - [but] nothing happened", von Bengtson told Deutsche Welle.

He explained that after careful examination, the main valve of the rocket booster failed. Had it worked properly, the high-pressurized liquid oxygen in the partly-solid fuel, part-liquid oxygen hybrid engine should have blasted through the rocket's fuel to ignite the rocket.

The problem occurred when a regular hairdryer was left unplugged for several minutes before launch. The hairdryer was meant to fire hot air at a valve to keep it from freezing under minus 180-degree Celsius liquid oxygen.

Using unconventional materials is one of the key elements in the build of this Danish amateur rocket. This approach has helped the team keeping costs down, being able to produce a full scale rocket and spaceship for about 50,000 euros or about $65,000.

Peter Madsen and Kristian von Bengtson

Peter Madsen and Kristian von Bengtson, founders of Copenhagen Suborbitals, say they will attempt another launch next year

Lessons learned

"Next step is the evaluation, we need to have on paper what we learned, especially at sea because a maritime operation is very difficult," von Bengtson said.

"We have a lot of lessons learned and the list is like, meters long. It goes all the way from the rocket, the technicals to personal issues and how to transport people at sea."

Despite this setback, von Bengtson is trying to stay positive, given the huge amount of coordination involved when working at sea. He even had to temporarily close the airspace over that part of the Baltic Sea.

"So it's a huge operation and just being able to build the rocket and bring it into sea and having this huge organization which actually carried out the launch attempt was a success itself," he added.

Success is 'possible'

And while that might sound like mere whitewashing, the fact that this group of amateurs actually got so close to launching a rocket is pretty impressive, astronomy experts say.

"The first time I heard about this project, my immediate reaction was these guys are mad," said Steen Eiler Joergensen, the president of the Danish Astronautical Society.

"But the more I looked at the details in the project the more it dawned upon me what they are trying to do is actually in principle, possible. Obviously it's gonna take a lot of hard work and it's going to take many more years before they can put a man on top of that rocket."

But for now, Copenhagen Suborbitals is setting a more modest goal.

They want to reach a suborbital flight - 100 kilometers into the air, just short of reaching orbit. The failed test launch was designed to go only a maximum of 30 kilometers in the air.

Of course, NASA and other major space agencies have been doing manned spaceflights for decades -- the technology hasn't changed that much over the past few decades.

Once the rocket launched, this doppler radar was meant to track its flight path

Once the rocket launched, this doppler radar was meant to track its flight path

But Peter Madsen, another one of Copenhagen Suborbitals' leaders and the constructor of the rocket booster, says that space agency bureaucracy is precisely what is slowing down space programs around the world.

"When I hear the time schedules of modern spaceflight, when they talk about returning to the moon in 25 years or going to Mars in 40 years I get almost pissed off," he said.

"What are you going to do in all this time? My way of thinking, technology needs to get started and to do things in a way that some might call overspeed or high-speed or something. But I mean, why wait?"

Effects on future funding not yet clear

While Madsen might be anxious to get going, it's hard when he and von Bengtson are the only full-time employees of the project. Plus, all the funding has come from corporations and members of the public, who donate handfuls of euros and Danish kroner at a time.

It's still too soon to tell if the failed launch will adversely affect future donations, even if Danish media have been poking fun at the failure. As a joke, one Danish television show even presented the organizers with a new hairdryer to replace the one that was left unplugged.

Von Bengtson explains that Copenhagen Suborbitals are deliberately targeting smaller donations so that they won't be subject to a large company pulling out. But although they had been optimistic, Bengtson says they may have been expecting too much the first time around.

"You have to know, and you have to accept that the chances of getting your first developed rocket in the air is rather slim", says Bengtson, noting also that even NASA has had lots of failures along the way.

Next launch planned for 2011

While this year's sea launch failed, organizers remain undeterred

While this year's sea launch failed, organizers remain undeterred

Von Bengtson also said that the team has rescheduled this test launch for June 2011. They have to wait that long to get permission from the Danish military to close the airspace again.

Presuming that launch is successful, the team has already drafted plans for an even more ambitious rocket the following year.

Regardless of the organization's recent obstacles, Peter Madsen says that the pair won't rest until they actually can launch themselves into space.

"Imagine for a moment - just in your mind, that there is a moment in history when you're looking out through the front of the spacecraft, and you realize that hey, we just put this together," he said.

"I built this with my hands, and my brains and my friends and now I'm in space in my own thing and I'm here and we survived it. The idea of realizing in space that you did it, that would be a great satisfaction."

Author: Niels Christian Cederberg
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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