Model rocket enthusiasts are learning how to do vertical landings

July 11, 2024
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Joe Barnard (or BPS.Space) and Aryan Kapoor are two model rocket enthusiasts who’ve spent years working to advance the hobby with innovative ways to precisely steer model rockets and land them vertically instead of just watching them parachute back to Earth after a launch. Despite many failures and setbacks, they’ve each succeeded in recreating SpaceX’s Falcon 9 landing capabilities at a much, much smaller scale and without billions of dollars of funding.

Barnard, who studied music production in college — not aerospace engineering — spent seven years designing, building, and perfecting various custom components, including a custom thrust vectoring mechanism for model rocket engines.

Relying on a pair of servo motors that are geared down to improve the accuracy of their movements, the thrust from the rocket engine can be angled up to five degrees in every direction. When paired with sensors and custom software, the mechanism allows Barnard’s rockets to remain vertical throughout an entire flight.

Using a combination of 3D-printed and machined metal parts, Barnard also developed a way to control the amount of thrust produced by solid-fuel rocket engines, which don’t have an off switch once ignited. A pair of adjustable ceramic paddles close to deflect the engine’s exhaust and reduce the amount of lift produced, facilitating highly controlled landings.

As recently shared by Hackaday, Kapoor is a high school student who has spent the past three years chasing the same goal under the handle JRD Propulsion. Kapoor’s rocket uses the same thrust vectoring approach as Barnard’s but uses flight data from a barometer and an accelerometer to accurately determine when a second engine needs to fire to ensure a safe landing.

The landing legs on Kapoor’s rocket are also much simpler than Barnard’s. They don’t retract, but each one cleverly uses a plastic syringe attached to rubber bands to absorb the impact of a rough landing, improving the chances of the rocket remaining upright.

SpaceX and other companies have pursued reusable rockets to improve the economics of space launches. But for hobbyists, the challenge of landing a rocket vertically is more than enough — let us know in the comments if you’ve seen anyone else attempting something similar.

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