A low-cost rocket capable of tossing small payloads into space has been test flown from a Mojave, California test site.

The successful launch and recovery of the Prospector 6 (P6) test vehicle took place on May 21, under the California Launch Vehicle Education Initiative (CALVEIN). A joint industry/academic team is hard at work to develop a low-cost Nanosat Launch Vehicle, a booster that can deliver 22 pound (10 kilogram) payloads to low Earth orbit.

The partially reusable P6 test vehicle is designed and built by Garvey Spacecraft Corporation in Long Beach, California and California State University, Long Beach. The rocket is a full-scale, but low-fidelity look-alike to a two-stage, more advanced vehicle being planned.

The pathfinder P6 flight evaluated new vehicle technologies and more proficient field site operations, said John Garvey of Garvey Spacecraft Corporation.

Responsive space operations

Roaring into the sky, the nearly 27 foot (8 meter) long Prospector 6 flew to slightly under 3,000 feet (914 meters) - a far cry from orbit, but a milestone toward the goal of hurling small satellites into space. The recent flight also carried an interstage, a second stage simulator and a graphite/epoxy composite payload fairing.

The research team conducted their test operations at the Mojave Test Area that is owned and operated by the Reaction Research Society.

"Of significance for advocates of responsive space operations," Garvey said, "was the demonstration of vehicle delivery, integration, payload installation, propellant loading, launch, recovery and shipment back to the California State University, Long Beach campus in a single day."

"We got the hardware back in decent shape again," Garvey told SPACE.com. "We'll be deciding which direction to head next. We might attempt to develop higher performing vehicles or remain focused on getting much of the basic fundamental technology and operations in place first, while still flying university-type payloads."

Student payloads

Garvey noted that the P6 flight also continued the CALVEIN practice of manifesting student payloads from across the country.

California State University, Long Beach-supplied experiments included a mini-DV camera sponsored by a student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The device captured on-board video of the entire flight sequence. In addition, the hardware handled a real-time telemetry system that adapted commercial off-the-shelf Wi Fi technology to relay key propulsion system parameters.

Also onboard the rocket was a measurement logging package provided by Montana State University. It recorded acceleration, pressure and temperature data that is already being used to assess the vehicle's performance.

Near-term test plans

With the successful recovery of the P6, the CALVEIN team is now updating their plans to reuse the hardware in future flight testing. The rocketeers are investigating new propellant mixes, advanced engine chamber materials, and novel ways to accommodate payloads on their launcher design.

"There are a number of folks on our end, including myself, who have a strong interest in the results. We are now in the process of updating our near-term test plans. The basic
P6 hardware is in good shape and can be refurbished in a short time," Garvey said.

Along with their recent low-altitude development flight, earlier team achievements include the first-ever powered flight tests of a liquid-propellant aerospike engine and composite cryogenic propellant tankage for liquid oxygen.

A view of the launch from an onboard camera is available here.