Record-breaking amateur rocket soars higher than Mt. Everest

a small rocket with a group of people surrounding it, in a sandy area. blue sky is in behind
A team from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University flew an amateur rocket higher than ever before. Members of the record-setting Cygnus Suborbitals team are (left to right) front row: Jared Walker, Kyle Dutcher, Dalton Songer (Team Lead), Dr. Daniel White, Zoe Brand, Dawson Damish (standing) Tom De Vries; back row: Charles Flaherty, Ben Black and Duncan Shour. (Image credit: Embry-Riddle/Rocket Development Lab)

An amateur rocket set a new record last month, soaring far higher than Mount Everest.

On April 16, students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University launched a small rocket to a maximum altitude of 47,732 feet (14,548 meters) — about 1.6 times higher than Everest, which stands 29,032 feet (8,849 m) tall. The feat also more than doubled the previous record set by U.S. undergraduate and collegiate amateurs, which was 22,000 feet (6,706 m).

"I fell to my knees, sobbing, from witnessing such an incredible feat," student Dalton Songer said in a May 11 statement, evoking the 4,000 hours of work that went into the construction, testing and launch. 

"Everyone was celebrating in a giant group hug," Songer said. "That moment was special — something that only happens when a dedicated group of individuals come together and make something incredible happen against all odds."

Related: The history of rockets

The launch, from the Mojave Desert in California, isn't the highest ever by amateurs, as other efforts have even reached what is considered space itself (roughly 62 miles, or 100 kilometers). For example, an undergraduate team from the University of Southern California sent their Traveler IV booster beyond the Kármán line in 2019, which likely set a record for students overall, officials said at the time.

Still, in their category (undergraduate liquid-fueled rocket launch), the Embry-Riddle students shone. Their rocket — named Deneb, after a star in the constellation Cygnus — broke the sound barrier easily, reaching Mach 1.5 (1,150 mph or 1,850 kph) during a 26.1-second flight. It took three scrubbed launch attempts to get there, forcing the entire team to camp for an extra night in the desert.

Songer said the launch was worth it. The students, from Embry-Riddle's Prescott, Arizona campus, sheltered in a bunker for the launch but could still see it: "Watching Deneb take off was the most exhilarating moment of my life," Songer said. "We all ran out of the bunker to watch as Deneb burned further and further into the morning sky. It was breathtaking."

Embry-Riddle students bring a rocket to its launching rail in the Mojave Desert, ahead of a record flight in their category on April 16, 2023. (Image credit: Embry-Riddle/Rocket Development Lab)

Several graduating students from the team have already been accepted for full-time jobs at locations like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Firefly Aerospace, said Elliott Bryner, Embry-Riddle's director of the propulsion laboratory and rocket test complex. "I have been working with this group of students for the past four years, and they are incredible engineers," Bryner said.

The team, dubbed the Cygnus Suborbitals, began their work during a a senior capstone propulsion design course co-taught by Daniel White and Jonathan Adams. They also formed part of the Rocket Development Lab (RDL), which is a student organization promoting rocketry and hands-on experience at Embry-Riddle.

Other students contributed 3,000 hours to the project through the RDL, and the effort also received donations from companies like Firefly and Lockheed Martin. Deneb followed from a predecessor rocket called Altair, which was delayed due to the pandemic and then exploded during an October 2022 launch attempt.

"We learned a lot from that rocket," said Zoe Brand, a team member who tested Deneb's engine, said in the same statement. "Altair was very heavy. So, we deliberately focused on making our rocket lighter by integrating the propellant tanks into the structural rigidity of the rocket."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: