Shaun Whitehead, owner and founder of Scoutek Ltd and ThumbSat Inc, has been working alongside the students of Teesside University to design, build and test various elements that are required to launch tiny balloon-launched rockets, capable of putting a ThumbSat into space on a sub-orbital trajectory, and eventually into orbit.
As well as the obvious technical challenges, the project team has had to overcome several other hurdles. The university has not been able to formally support the project, and so Scoutek Ltd has continued to fund it. Shaun has also been mentoring some of the keener students to continue developing the project outside of the university. 2020 was a difficult year, but the team found ways to make progress even while socially distancing and working remotely.
Two of the students working on the project are Callum McClintock and Eslam Eldoky. They recently launched another test mission. This involved launching a high altitude meteorological balloon into the stratosphere. Contained within the balloon was a dummy rocket which housed a number of electronics which allowed the team to track its trajectory in real-time.
They put great emphasis on parts being constructed of biodegradable materials (such as wood) due to the flight taking place over the North Sea. The wooden parts were kindly manufactured and donated by local talent Dennis Wake – owner of Woodturning Hartlepool. Upon the balloon bursting at the desired altitude, the dummy rocket accurately simulated the aerodynamics of a real rocket as it fell through the atmosphere.
This test flight replicated most parts of the final space mission attempt, other than the ignition of the rocket motor that will boost the rocket from high altitude (~30km) to space (~100km). Igniting the motor at such a high altitude (beyond 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere) is key to allowing a tiny rocket to reach space.
All of the equipment for the launch was acquired, assembled, programmed and tested by various members of the student team. In order to communicate with the rocket’s onboard electronics and track its trajectory, they even designed, built and used their own DIY antennae during the flight.