spaceSpace and Physics

A Rocket Built By Students Has Blasted Into Space For The First Time


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockMay 23 2019, 19:56 UTC

Blast off at Spaceport America on a sunny April morning in 2019. USC Rocket Propulsion Lab

A group from the University of Southern California’s Rocket Propulsion Lab (RPL) has become the first team of students to build and launch a rocket into outer space successfully. As far as student science projects go, that's definitely more impressive than the baking soda volcano you made in third grade.

After blasting off from Spaceport America in New Mexico on the morning of April 21, the Traveler IV rocket reached its apogee at 103,571 meters (339,800 feet), with an uncertainty of 5,120 meters (16,800 feet), making it the record holder for the highest altitude ever reached by a student built and designed rocket. It also managed to reach over 17g’s at its eye-watering top speed of 5,452 kilometers (3,388 miles) per hour.


“We can say with 90 percent certainty that RPL’s latest spaceshot, Traveler IV, passed the Kármán line, the recognized boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space,” Neil Tewskbury, lead operations officer at RPL, said in a statement.

USC Rocket Propulsion Lab

Named after the Hungarian-American mathematician and aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán, the Kármán line can be found at an altitude of approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) above sea level. 

This is widely considered the edge of space because it’s the altitude at which the atmosphere becomes too thin to support aeronautical flight. However, there is no strict boundary where this occurs, as the atmosphere simply gets thinner and thinner with altitude, and most definitions are fairly arbitrary. For some perspective, the Kármán line – and the journey of the Traveler IV – is almost 10 times higher than a commercial airplane flight, as well as considerably higher than aurora borealis and meteors. 

USC Rocket Propulsion Lab

Like all successes, it took a lot of failures to get here. Both Traveler I and Traveler II exploded shortly after launch. Traveler III edged closer to the end goal in the fall of 2018 but also ended in failure due to a miscommunication problem at the launch. By December, the team was back in the lab working on Traveler IV. The same team are already working on their next project, hoping to break their own world record using a liquid-fueled vehicle.

“After nearly 15 years and over a million hours of work, RPL has finally achieved its goal of being the first student group to launch the first student-designed and built rocket past the Kármán line,” added Dennis Smalling, chief student engineer of RPL.

He continued: “The ability of this team to overcome setbacks and continuously innovate new technology has been inspiring. I’m so proud of what this lab has been able to accomplish so far and I’m incredibly excited to see where RPL goes from here.”



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