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December 26, 2008 

Mysterious "Project 3000" Cold Weather Test Flight Crash Lands In a Tree

The test flight of this date was part of an ongoing project which we referred to as "Project 3000", which has a meaning which will be revealed in the future. This project depended upon building a rocket which was larger and more powerful than anything we had built in the past.

This flight was planned in advance with a number of tests and milestones which we wanted to achieve. The main goal of the flight was to test a newly constructed electronics module which would be fitted to a brand new rocket which was under construction at the time. The new electronics module featured a completely new HD Camera which was fabricated by laying out a custom printed circuit board using the reference schematic provided with the HD Camera chipset Evaluation board. The primary goal of the flight test was to validate the HD camera and telemetry electronics.

The electronics module also featured an aerodynamic fairing which housed a "first surface mirror". The fairing was needed to help reduce the aerodynamic drag of the mirror and protect it from scratches. Scratching is seldom a problem with the type of mirror most people are familiar with because the glass protects the reflective silver coating, but we chose a first surface mirror for this rocket because the outer layer of the mirror is the reflective layer, which eliminates ghost reflections from the glass surface of the standard mirror normally used. The drawback of the first surface mirror is the coating can be scratched easily, hence the need for the protective fairing. The fairing could be installed or removed using nylon screws, so the view from the HD camera could be sideways or reverse if the mirror was left off or installed.

Onboard camera photo gallery [click to Enlarge]

The reverse angle produced by the mirror was not necessary for the rocket to achieve the goals we had designed for it, but we felt that a reverse angle would be more interesting, and was a perspective that few water rocket videographers were recording at that time. The reverse angle was so new to the team that at the last minute we realized that the secret of our launcher design would be plainly visible in the reverse view and we improvised a solution by covering the split collar launcher (which we recently released to the general public at the following link: USWR Split Collar Launcher Construction Tutorial) with a garbage bag.

For this flight, we chose to use our X-12 Water Rocket, because it is more powerful than X-10 and it would be a better representation of the forces the payload module would have to endure on the future rocket it was built for, An aerodynamic fairing was built to adapt the narrower T-12 based FTC tube size of X-12 to the larger payload module diameter.

In addition to testing the new electronics module, another goal of the launch was to see if we could successfully launch the rocket in extreme cold climate conditions. To do this with a water rocket we realized that the issue of the rocket freezing on the launcher would be a distinct possibility, so we decided to dilute the water reaction mass in the rocket using windshield washer fluid typically used for automobiles, since this liquid is designed to be an environmentally safe antifreeze. The Temperature at the time of launch was 20F (-7C), making the antifreeze a requirement. We discussed using salt as the antifreeze, but we were not sure if salt water would corrode the release clamp or any of the brass fittings on the launcher, so we decided against using salt.

The rocket was then prepared for launch, which involves folding and packing the parachute under the nosecone, and then filling it with reaction mass. Once filled, the launch tube assembly was slid into the nozzle to prevent the water from draining out, and then once this is done the batteries were connected. After these pre-flight steps, the rocket and launch tube assembly was carried in a horizontal position to the launcher base, where the camera was manually started and the rocket/launch tube assembly was installed on the plumbing using a high pressure hose quick connect. The ability to work on tall rockets by mounting the release mechanism on a removable launch tube makes the preparation tasks much easier because no ladder is needed to access the electronics and deploy systems which are about 9 feet off the ground when installed on the launcher base. The quick connect allows the use of multiple sizes and different types of launch tubes with a single common launcher base. The advantages of this type of launcher were revealed when the video of this project was uploaded to YouTube in 2009, and the benefits were immediately seen by viewers who were inspired to adopt similar concepts for their own launcher designs.

The pressurization went well without any unusual incidents, which were perhaps expected a bit because there was concern that the pressure vessel would be more brittle in the cold temperature. Thankfully, the launch pressure was obtained without trouble and the rocket launched. Then the trouble began.

After flying to an apogee of 1,686 feet, the parachute was deployed. From the ground view, the rocket seemed to be coming down visibly faster than it usually descends. At that time, we thought that the parachute shroud lines had become entangled and were preventing the parachute from fully opening. Since we usually launch this rocket over a body of water, a tangled chute does not present a large concern because the rocket can survive a hard landing on the water, but in this case there was concern because the rocket would be hitting the ground. In the final analysis, we determined that the parachute never tangled, but rather it ripped in two pieces once it was deployed. We believe the film used to make the parachute was stiffened by the cold and it essentially started tearing when it inflated. Thankfully, the parachute did not split evenly in half and the larger portion that was intact was able to slow the rocket from a free-fall to a fast but controlled descent. The rocket would certainly have suffered bad damage when striking the frozen ground, but for a very lucky bit of bad luck... the parachute snagged in a tree before the rocket could hit the ground.

After an hour or so of different attempts to reach the rocket, it finally was dislodged from the tree and recovered. The test was considered a success because the cold weather launch was a success and not an explosion, the HD camera took HD video, and the telemetry system operated well. We were quite pleased with the results of the test, and especially with the improvements in quality of the on-board video offered by the on-board camera.

Look for future reports from this series in the future.

If you want to build a similar release mechanism as the one featured in this article, visit:
USWR Split Collar Launcher Construction Tutorial.

A tongue-in-cheek video was created to document this flight, which we uploaded to YouTube. In case you were wondering, the HUD and Warning Claxons were added to the video for entertainment purposes. Other than the addition of these humorous elements, the on-board video is as recorded (but was flipped in software to eliminate the flip caused by the mirror)


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