College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)


On 14 March, the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Aerospace Systems Research Institute (ASRI) Space Propulsion Programme, successfully test launched its Phoenix 1 D hybrid rocket demonstrator. The Phoenix 1 D was carrying experimental sensors and cameras as part of the mission.

ASRI, the former Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG), funded by the Department of Science and Innovation, is pursuing the development of sub-orbital sounding rockets (Phoenix) and orbital liquid rocket engine technology (SAFFIRE) under one integrated Space Propulsion Programme (SPP).

The University is currently the only South African university pursuing an applied rocket propulsion programme, producing graduates with skills in advanced manufacturing, aerospace systems design, rocket launch operations and computational analysis.

The Phoenix hybrid rocket programme, is driven by young mechanical engineering students at UKZN.

Months of hard work on the design and production elements of the Phoenix rocket, by a group of dedicated young people, culminated in an exciting launch.

The team is now preparing for the second and final test for the campaign, that of the Phoenix 1C, a low-altitude rocket and, weather-permitting, it will be launched with experimental payloads for the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), SANSA and a private company that the engineers hope to recover.

Both vehicles include design changes to the airframes and onboard systems that make them structurally more efficient, and form a critical part of ASRI’s mission to develop larger, orbital launch systems.

In March 2021, ASReG successfully launched the Phoenix-1B Mark IIr sounding rocket. It travelled 17,9 km into the air achieving a new African hybrid rocket altitude record. The 2021 launch was hugely significant for South African engineering and the development of an African satellite rocket launch capability.

Sounding rockets are rocket-propelled launch vehicles that carry experimental payloads to the upper reaches of the atmosphere or into space.  They play a crucial role in facilitating experiments in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including biotechnology, astronomy, astrophysics, materials science and meteorology.

The Phoenix programme is a human capital development initiative. The programme, started in 2010, has produced a number of graduates with advanced engineering skills, and who have been absorbed into South Africa’s engineering sector with entities including Rheinmetall Denel Munition, SANSA, the CSIR and Armscor. Human capital development is the main objective of the programme, together with developing indigenous space propulsion technologies.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied