Cambridge University Spaceflight

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From the edge of space a tiny camera captures the dramatic curvature of the Earth, during a test flight that is one small step for Cambridge University students aiming to launch a rocket into space for under £1,000. - The Guardian

Cambridge University Spaceflight is a student run society founded in 2006 comprising undergraduates and postgraduates from many disciplines. We aim to develop the technology needed to reduce the cost of sub-orbital access to space for scientific research, in the form of high altitude balloon launches, designing rockets, and other related experiments.

Martlet 2 Body Tubes and Aluminium Stock

A couple of weeks ago we received the first components of the Martlet 2 airframe. These roll wrapped carbon fibre tubes have an inner diameter of 182mm and a 2mm wall thickness. They were bought ‘off-the-shelf’ from a UK company and look great!

Carbon fibre body tubes.

Carbon fibre body tubes.

Both need facing off to ensure the top and bottom surfaces are perpendicular to the rocket axis. One of the tubes needs to be cut down to 750mm for the motor section whilst the other is already at just about the correct length for the parachute section. If time allows then a thin layer of epoxy will be applied to the outside in order to get a nice smooth aerodynamic surface.

In addition to the carbon fibre tubes we have also got, as of this morning, most of the aluminium stock from which various parts of the airframe are being machined out of.

AirframeParts

The raw material of the airframe

The raw aluminium stock consists of:

  • A length of 7.5″ OD x 3/4″ tube from which the fin can and the body tube coupler will be machined
  • A length of 7.5″ OD x 1″ tube from which the nose cone coupler will be machined. The extra 1/4″ is required to proved a surface that the Metron protractors located in the nose cone can push off from.
  • 500 x 1000 8mm thick aluminium plate which will be used to machine the rocket’s three fins.

We still need to get stock for machining the nose cone tip and the mirror shroud – though as these are much smaller parts the stock for these will most likely be obtained from CUED stores.

Now that we have the stock we can start getting components machined. Once the body tube and nose cone coupler are machined they can be sent straight to the anodisers. The fin can and fins, however, have to be welded together before a further set of machining operations can be performed on the combined unit. These machining operations are done in order to ensure that some of the machined features inside the fin can (such as the all important thrust ring!)  have the correct dimension and aren’t warped during the welding process. After this has been done the whole lot is sent to the anodiser for hard anodising. Hopefully this will all go smoothly and we’ll soon have pictures of the machined parts.

 

 

Martlet 2 Electronics Schematics

A little bit of the schematic for the radio board m2r

A little bit of the schematic for the radio board m2r

After many weeks of careful planning and design, lots of simulations and calculations, and pages upon pages of datasheets, the first revision of the design for the flight computers aboard Martlet 2 are complete.

You can check them out here: m2fc is the main flight computer and m2r is the radio board. Since the radio board is the simpler of the two, we’ll talk about that first.

 m2r: The Radio Board

This board is responsible for receiving GPS positions and transmitting them and additional data from the main flight computer over a radio link and a satellite link back to the ground station. At its core is an STM32F303 microcontroller, a powerful ARM-based chip that has several useful peripherals such as a digital-to-analogue converter which we use to drive the radio’s modulator, and three serial ports. It’s also speedy and has plenty of memory, which will come in useful for using error correction codes on the radio data. A handful of LEDs for monitoring, a programming connector, and standard µC support circuitry round out the basics.

For the GPS, we use a uBlox Max-7Q, a very compact and high-performance GPS receiver. A low now amplifier and GPS filter, the ALM-2712, increases sensitivity.

The radio downlink uses a Radiometrix MTX2 unit, generously sponsored by Radiometrix (thank you!). This tiny and high performance radio is the successor to ones we have used on our high altitude balloons, where the 10mW transmit power is enough to receive a balloon from 700km away. It has an FM input that maps to a narrowband output, so we can use it for FSK when received with an SSB receiver, or with any baseband signal when used with an FM receiver (at the cost of some signal to noise ratio). Additionally the MTX2 can be programmed to operate over a wide range of frequencies, so we can resolve any potential clashes or avoid local noise sources.

Following the MTX2 is an optional amplifier stage. In the UK this won’t be legal to fly, so we can bypass it for testing, but in the USA it would be OK to operate under an amateur radio licence. The amplifier boosts the output power up to 500mW, which should help it punch through the rocket and reach the ground station. This is the most careful part of the board design, where the best bet is following the ADL5324 datasheet’s recommendation as closely as possible.

To talk to the main flight computer we use the ADuM1201, a more modern version of the optoisolators of the past. This chip provides galvanic isolation via an in-silicon transformer, so that anything upsetting that might come in the cable is prevented from affecting the rest of the board.

For the satellite modem we connect to a RockBLOCK unit, which uses the Iridium network to provide worldwide coverage (so long as the antenna is pointing up!). This is a backup to the MTX2 in case the rocket goes out of radio range or we experience a radio failure. It sends less data and does so slower, but should be useful for getting a final GPS position after landing.

m2fc: Flight Computer

The main PCB has a longer list of responsibilities:

  • Measure rocket acceleration, rotation, altitude and bearing
  • Fire pyrotechnic devices at appropriate moments in the flight
  • Measure strain gauges to determine fin loading
  • Measure thermocouples
  • Log data to SD card
  • Communicate with the radio board to have key telemetry (altitude and flight status) sent back to the ground station

To get all this done we start with an even beefier microcontroller, the STM32F405VGT7. In addition to having 100 pins (compare to 48 for the radio board), we get a bump in clock speed (up to 168MHz) and a lot of peripherals (we’ll be using 3 SPIs, 2 I²Cs, 2 USARTs, the SDIO peripheral, 7 ADC inputs, and a bunch of GPIOs). As before, LEDs, programming interface, a voltage regulator and parts like the clock crystal come as standard.

The SD card here uses the SDIO interface rather than the commonly used SPI interface. The SDIO interface is faster, and on microSD cards can transfer a nibble at each clock, rather than just one bit. Additionally this means we can use the SPI peripherals for other things.

For the inertial sensing, we have a full suite of MEMS sensors. ADXL345 and ADXL375 provide low- and high-G acceleration sensing over SPI, with an output data rate of 3200Hz. The L3G4200D measures the rate of rotation at 800Hz, the HMC5883L measures the magnetic field strength which we can use to estimate a bearing, and MS5611 measures absolute barometric pressure, from which we can derive the current altitude. We’ve hooked each sensor to its own communication peripheral on the STM32 to help avoid bus contention, simplify programming, and ensure maximum data rates. Other than that there’s nothing particularly exotic going on here — the joy of highly integrated sensors.

The serial interface uses a variant on the ADuM1201 on the radio board: the ADuM5201, which in addition to data isolation provides an isolated 5V power output, which we use to power the radio’s ADuM1201. This handy feature means there is complete isolation between the two circuit boards. A second ADuM5201 is provided for futureproofing and connection to a computer for debug and development purposes.

An external red/green LED lets the user know in the field that everything is OK with the set up. The flight computer can check that all the sensors are working, run self tests, verify that the SD card is recording data, communicate with the radio board, ensure satellite and GPS lock, detect the pyrotechnic devices are installed correctly, and ensure all the sensor values are close to nominal before asserting that everything is ready to fly.

The two pyro channels are able to drive 1A into a Metron protractor unit, a small pyrotechnic device which we use for staging and parachute deployment. Continuity detection is provided so the microcontroller can verify that the connections to the devices are OK, and a large capacitor provides the energy to blow the pyro.

The thermocouple design starts veering into actual analogue work. Thermocouples are temperature sensors that operate on the Seebeck effect, producing a very small voltage proportional to the temperature difference between two metal-metal junctions. One junction is at the sensor, measuring the temperature of the fin leading edge, for example. The other junction is at the PCB. Here a speciality thermocouple amplifier, the AD8495, is used to provide both amplification of the very small voltages from the sensor and cold junction compensation. Before the amp is an input RC filter to reject any radio noise picked up on the long leads to the thermocouple. After the amplifier is a two-stage, fourth-order Butterworth antialiasing filter, to ensure that no frequency content above the Nyquist frequency of the ADC is present.

Finally the strain gauges. These sensors are affixed to structural elements of the rocket and change resistance in proportion to the material strain. The change in resistance is detected using a bridge circuit, and the very small voltage amplified up with an AD8226 instrumentation amplifier. Extra care has to be taken that the references are precise and temperature effects are controlled and compensated for, as they are usually of the same magnitude (or larger!) than the voltages due to strain. Here, one half of a Wheatstone bridge is formed of two high-precision and low-temperature-coefficient resistors on the PCB, providing an accurate Vcc/2 reference. The other half of the bridge is on the fin, with one strain gauge and one 120R completion resistor. They should both be at the same temperature, which helps remove that influence. Some factors are not controlled for — the wires leading to the strain gauge will have a resistance, for example, and that will change with temperature. This would lower the voltage across the bridge, and affect the calculations of the strain from the measured voltage. However, some simulations suggest that this impact should be very small as the wires are short and reasonably well behaved. As with the thermocouples, an RF filter is present on the front end, and a fourth-order antialias filter completes the setup.

 

The next stage is to design the printed circuit boards for both of these schematics. Many other considerations apply here, as component layout and routing can have a big impact on performance. Hopefully no big changes will have to be made to the schematic once work is underway on the PCBs!

Quasar parts

Over the past week we have modified some of the existing parts of Quasar (our static hybrid rocket) and machined a new injector and nozzle in the student workshop.

Quasar parts

Quasar nozzle Quasar injector

Lynx dev r1 PCBs

Current radios on High Altitude Ballons (HABs) are laughably slow, on the order of 50 bits/s. While this can suffice for transmitting simple data strings such as GPS co-ordinates, it’s useless for anything else. There have been several attempts at in-flight image transmission for amateur HABs with existing radios, though these took around 6 minutes to transmit a single small grainy image.

Lynx is an experimental digital radio transmitter for HABs, capable of data rates an order of magnitude above existing amateur systems. The end goal of the project is to have a live video stream coming from a balloon in flight. It features a powerful ARM chip to deal with the error correction codes and signal processing.
This development board will allow a number of the key radio systems to be thoroughly tested before implementation in the first flight model. Currently, we are waiting for some RF components to arrive from the US before the board is assembled.

Many thanks to the Cambridge Circuit Company for this fantastic set of boards.

Lynx - bare

 

Gimbal parts

Collected two part which were water jetted by the workshop. The three pieces fit inside each other to hopefully make a gimbal.

IMAG0341

I made the central part at home using a lathe, shaper and drill.

IMAG0315

The blue dye is for marking.

IMAG0336

 

 

March EARS Launch Day

We went to the March EARS Launch Day.  We launched two rockets: Pulsar, a kit built by freshers last term, and Isis, a rocket built last year.

Here’s Pulsar going up on a G-motor:

And here’s Isis on a 4-grain I:

Skunk!

A while ago, the nice folks at Bronkhorst gave us a helium-compatible gas flow meter on loan.  This shiny (literally) bit of kit allows us to deliver precise quantities of helium to our high altitude balloons, hopefully increasing the accuracy of our predictions.  The flow meter needs control from a PC (with an RS232 port!), which is inconvenient when in the middle of a field.

Skunk is a project to use an Arduino as the controller for the flow meter, meaning we can put it all in a nice case with a battery and control panel for field-filling.  A key part of this is the interface PCB – an Arduino shield with all the random circuitry crammed on.  After a few weeks of design, the wonderful, amazing, people at the Cambridge Circuit Company fabricated a beautiful PCB for us – pictures of the bare and made-up boards are below!  (Points for spotting the design mistakes I’ve had to correct – thankfully none were show-stoppers).  There’s still a lot left to do on Skunk, but for once it’s making solid progress.  One of our new members will be developing the firmware in the new year, once the hardware is all hooked up.

The top of a finished Skunk v1 board

The top of a finished Skunk v1 board

The bottom of a finished skunk v1 board

The bottom of a finished skunk v1 board

Front of a bare skunk v1 board.  Photo by Cambridge Circuit Company

Front of a bare skunk v1 board. Photo by Cambridge Circuit Company

 

OkGo!

Some of our team have recently been developing a prototype hybrid rocket motor.  Our motor was to be ignited by lighting a length of slow-fuse, waiting for the fuse to burn down some of the length of the fuel, then opening a valve to allow the oxidiser to flow through the fuel.  The oxidiser valve requires around 10 amps continuous current, which is rather more than most ignition systems are geared up for.

OkGo (Named after the band) is our ignition system, developed to light the hybrid (We also used it to ignite a number of solid fuel rockets).  It’s a very simple system based on buttons, switches and relays, but works well and should be highly reliable.  We are considering adding features such as continuity testing (This lets you test whether the ematch is intact and connected before activating it).

A quick demonstration video is included below:

DorMouse

DorMouse (pictured below), is a flight computer, designed to go in the nose cone of a model rocket. We built DorMouse for the Sunday 2nd Rocket launch at EARS, though plan to continue to use it for low to medium level model rocket launches. It has a large suite of sensors, including 2 accelerometers (16g, 200g), a barometer, and a uBlox GPS, all of which are logged to an SD card, with a polling rate for most of the sensors of at least 500Hz. There’s also an XBEE on board for coarse live data at the highest rate the signal strength allows. DorMouse is controlled by a 72MHz (STMF103RFT6) ARM CPU.

Actual size: 4×7 cm

Headers shown are for an XBEE

We are particularly grateful to the Cambridge Circuit Company for delivering the first revision of the DorMouse PCBs, one of which was partially assembled for the first launch. It was unfortunately afflicted by a software (DMA related) bug which prevented it from flying … though in a rocket whose front section was subsequently lost – a near miss!

We’ll have an update once the full board is assembled, and we plan to do an even smaller revision 2. Other fun future ideas include adding a precise timestamp to all the logged data, using the GPS unit for timing.