Copenhagen Suborbitals dreams big with Spica rocket

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Artist's impression of the Spica I rocket(Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals)

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Meet Copenhagen Suborbitals (CS), the small Danish organization with a big dream – launching a human being into space, and returning them safely to Earth in a shoestring-budget micro rocket. The CS website conveys a simple mission statement, to prove that access to space does not have to come in the form of an exorbitantly expensive government-subsidized project. CS is proving that a driven group of individuals can achieve what would at first glance appear to be the unachievable, and strike a blow for the democratization of space.

Operating out of a workshop situated in a closed shipyard, the crowdfunded outfit is staffed exclusively by volunteers, most of whome devote their time to the amateur space program after their regular 9 – 5 jobs. CS has already launched a number of unmanned rockets of increasing technological complexity from a mobile platform in the Baltic Sea.

Land-based launch sites were quickly ruled out, as the closest established spaceports were considered too remote to be of use, and military installations like shooting ranges were simply too small to cater to the organization's ambitious goals. The only viable option remaining to the group was to launch the rockets at sea. CS constructed a launch complex in the form of a 12-ton (10.9-tonne) steel catamaran, designated Sputnik, which would serve as both transportation and launch pad for CS's rockets.

The Sputnik launch platform pictured with the Heat-1X rocket(Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals)

Once both platform and rocket have made the treacherous 125 nautical mile (231.5 km) voyage from Copenhagen to the launch site, operations will be controlled from aboard the CS flagship - the 19 m (62 ft) class German cutter VOSTOK. The primary launch area used by CS is actually an old military firing zone, which is made available to the group by the Admiral Danish Fleet.

The first rocket launched by CS was the 9.38-m (30.77-ft) tall Heat-1X rocket. Mounted atop the experimental rocket sat the Tycho Brahe spacecraft, and within that a test dummy lovingly named Rescue Randy. The less than ideal launch of the Heat-1X rocket taught CS a number of valuable lessons. Soon after launch, the rocket pitched at a 30-degree angle, forcing the ground crew to shut down the launch vehicle's engine only 15 seconds into the mission.

The intense forces resulting from the unfortunate trajectory shredded the parachute, leaving the Tycho Brahe to strike the water at 200 km/h (124 mph), inflicting significant damage to the capsule. In the video below you can watch the launch from the perspective of Rescue Randy (who we imagine has since been retired from service with full honors).

Despite the apparent failure of the rocket, the test was considered a success – CS had managed to fabricate and launch a 1,630-kg (3,594-lb) rocket from a purpose-built platform floating at sea. The organization had shown that many of the fundamental elements of sub-orbital launch and infrastructure were there, and that it had taken its first step towards putting a human being in space.

The next significant advancement for CS came in the form of its single-stage Sapphire rocket, which blasted into the skies above the Baltic Sea sporting a newly implemented guidance and vector control system.

During launch, guidance and navigation computers located in Sapphire's avionics compartment manipulated a set of jet vanes inserted into the rocket's exhaust, which were designed to manipulate the force exerted by the polyurethane/liquid nitrous oxide hybrid rocket engine. Following the test, it was revealed that the system performed well, leaving the rocket a mere 191 m (627 ft) off target as the launch vehicle reached apogee, some 8,253 m (27,077 ft) above the Earth.

Sapphire rocket launching from the Sputnik launch platform in June 2013(Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals)

Next up for launch will be the Nexø I & II rockets, which will serve to demonstrate several key technologies including a new hybrid engine and upgraded graphite jet vanes, which will allow the control mechanism to survive a prolonged 50-second burn. Upon descent, Nexø I will deploy a ballutte to control orientation whilst in free-fall, and a 34.7 sq m (113.8 sq ft) parachute, which will (hopefully) allow the rocket to splash down at a gentle 8 m/s (26 ft/s).

Constructed predominantly from aluminum in an effort to reduce weight, the Nexø family of launchers will be significantly smaller than the manned Spica rocket, standing only 5.5 m (18 ft) tall. The final manufacturing process of the Nexø I rocket is already well underway, with CS hard at work machining and assembling the testing rocket. Both Nexø I and II are scheduled to launch this year, with launch windows secured in both August and September.

Whilst Nexø I and II will prove to be vital testing missions, it is the Spica rocket family that CS is relying on to fulfil its ambition of sending a man into space. Spica is currently in the preliminary design phase, with many aspects of the rocket liable to change as CS continues its Nexø launch campaign.

Diagram of the Nexø I rocket(Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals)

However, with regard to the current design, the rocket will stand 13 m (42.7 ft) tall, relying on a 100 kN liquid bi-propellant engine running on liquid oxygen and ethanol to break the oppressive hold of Earth's atmosphere. In order to assure engine efficiency, Spica will use a combination of pressure blow down and an active pressurization system to ensure that fuel is properly distributed in the propellent tank.

CS intends to move away from the jet vane method of launch vehicle orientation used in the Sapphire and Nexø rockets in favour of a gimbal system, which would see the entire engine shift to provide orientation control, resulting in greater efficiency.

The group plans to accelerate Spica to a maximum speed of 3600 km/h (2,237 mph) in an effort to send the rocket to the Karman line – a point 100 km (62 miles) above the Earth's surface. At 190 seconds into the flight, the spacecraft will separate from the launch vehicle and begin its descent. Spica I is slated for launch next year, with Spica II following in 2017.

Annotated artist's impression of the Spica I rocket(Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals)

Little information has been made available regarding the characteristics of the capsule that will (hopefully) send the astronaut into space, but since Spica I is set to be unmanned, CS has a little time to work on the design of its crewed module. Not being a government body bogged down in a quagmire of admin and bureaucracy, CS can move very quickly from design to production to testing.

This said, keeping an astronaut alive in space is arguably one of the most impressive engineering feats that our young species has accomplished, so developing the technology required to shield a human being from the deadly orbital environment, even though the tech is now fairly well understood, will be a tall order for an amateur space program.

As with the Spica rocket, the group's spacecraft will draw on experience collected from previous launches. CS states that it is currently designing and building the Apollo-inspired capsule Tycho Deep Space II (TDSII), however from the Spica I graphic, it appears that the eventual spacecraft will boast a cylindrical design at odds with TDSII.

Artist's impression of Tycho Deep Space II splashing down under deployed parachutes(Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals)

Regardless of the final shape of the capsule, it must be capable of shielding an astronaut from a number of potentially lethal threats. Radiation, the vacuum of space, the intense heat of re-entry, and just the general forces inherent with launching a suborbital rocket all pose deadly risks to a potential astronaut. Furthermore, based on the rocket's estimated 955-mm (37.6-in) diameter, an inline capsule is going to be a pretty cramped and dangerous ride, so the astronaut selected to join Spica II on its journey to space will need either a lot of courage, or a lot of crazy.

CS is also in the process of developing other vital safety equipment and systems for its as-of-yet unnamed pioneer in the form of a pressure suit and LAS system, though the latter could only be employed should the final design of Spica II situate the spacecraft at the apex of the rocket.

At the core of the endeavour is a group of passionate individuals hoping to make the seemingly impossible a reality. Its dangerous, overtly ambitious, and even a little bit crazy, but should CS ever launch its Spica II rocket, it will capture the attention of a global audience.

The late and great President Kennedy would be proud.

Those hoping to sponsor Copenhagen Suborbital can do so via the group's donation page or via the Nexø I Indiegogo campaign.

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