I was out at the Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) range in the Mojave Desert on Saturday. Garvey Spacecraft Corporation launched its Prospector 18D rocket with four CubeSats built by teams in California and Florida. The goal was to test two of the CubeSats in high-altitude launch conditions before they are sent into orbit late next year aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.
The rocket was raised up on its rail launch tower on Friday.
After hours of preparation, the rocket roared off into the clear blue Mojave sky at 10:52 a.m. At first, all went well as the rocket soared toward a peak altitude of 10,000 to 15,000 feet.
It never got there. At 9,000 feet, the main parachute suddenly deployed. Aerodynamic force ripped off the parachute and the Prospector’s fins as the rocket started to tumble. The rocket crashed among the sagebrush less than a half mile from its launch site. It was intact but badly damaged.
Students and staff from Merritt Island High School — in the yellow shirts — examine the damaged rocket. They built one of the four CubeSats on board. They still don’t know how well it survived the crash.
While the rocket was returned to FAR by forklift, many of the students fanned out into the sagebrush to look for the rocket’s lost fins. They were by a $50 per fin bounty put up by Garvey Spacecraft Founder John Garvey.
At the FAR hangar, the battered nosecone was removed, revealing a damaged RUBICS-1 CubeSat built by engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
PhoneSat (above), built by engineers at NASA Ames Research Center, was also badly dented by the crash. The CubeSat transmitted data to the ground during the flight.
Merritt Island High School’s StangSat (right) fared much better. It was located below the nosecone inside of a poly-picosat orbital deployer (P-Pod), a rugged spring-loaded canister used to deploy satellites into orbit (left, rear). Also in the P-POD was the CP-9, a CubeSat built at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo (left, foreground).
Despite the parachute failure, the test still produced very useful data and was declared a success.