Logo: University of Southern California

Del Carbon Flies Again

May 30, 2007 —

Sarah Thomas
Forty-five pounds of carbon fiber, Kevlar and solid rocket propellant shot into the clear, blue April sky soaring to 18,461 feet above California’s Mojave Desert before plummeting safely back to the ground by parachute. It was the third successful launch in two years for Del Carbon.

This demonstration flight vehicle was built from scratch by USC Viterbi School astronautics students in the USC Rocket Propulsion Lab (RPL).

Del Carbon, named for its carbon-fiber construction as well as the students’ favorite fast food restaurant, was baked in an oven big enough for a “really big pizza, “ according to sophomore David Reese. It first flew in a May 2006 (http://viterbi.usc.edu/news/news/2006/news_20060530.htm). After the success of that test flight, Del Carbon, with its hand-polished aluminum nosecone, received a more powerful engine and was launched again in October. That time, it reached an altitude of more than 21,000 feet.

Reese, a rocket hobbyist since age eight, eagerly responded when Daniel Erwin, professor of astronautics, asked his astronautics students about their interest in forming a student-run research organization to design, build and test composite airframes. Many of the more than 20 others who responded are still part of the core group that includes students ranging from freshmen to grad students. Ian Whittinghill, a senior and another student with years of rocket building experience, has led the group since its beginning.

David Reese, second from left, and astronautics students from the Rocket Propulsion Lab work on Del Carbon.
The April flight tested two new systems. The CanSat payload (small enough to fit in a soda can) carried a GPS avionics system to record position information and log it into flash memory. For this flight, the RPL students replaced the nosecone aluminum with lightweight Kevlar to allow penetration by the GPS signals.

The telemetry downlink was successful and corroborated the integrated accelerometer data that showed apogee at 17,900 feet.

The flight also tested a dual stage parachute system. The purpose of the two stages is to speed up the rocket’s descent and make it less vulnerable to drifting in the strong desert winds.

Reese and sophomore Sarah Thomas used words like “unbelievable” and “amazing” to describe the launch but Reese says words can’t really capture the experience. “It’s like nothing else in the world. You’re getting hands on experience with what you learned in class, and pushing the limits of what can be done,” he said.

Thomas, who manages the lab, enjoys the chance to work with other engineering students. “It’s fun to travel with the group, and the hands on experience is great. The skills you learn help you get a job in the future.”

Both she and Reese have summer jobs at NASA’s nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Del Carbon is being retired after three successful flights. Thomas is coordinating RPL’s move to new lab space where the group plans to develop a hybrid propulsion rocket with the goal of reaching an altitude of 100 kilometers, which is the Kármán line, the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and outer space.

Video of Del Carbon’s launch, of the students’ treks to the desert and a blog, can be found at RPL’s website at www.uscrpl.com.

-- Linda M. Davis