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Teen's model rocket achieves SpaceX-inspired vertical landing

It took SpaceX years to successfully land its reusable Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. Since then, model rocket designers have been trying to recreate the feat. Joe Barnard’s BPS.space accomplished the milestone in 2022 after 7 years of work. The latest model to successfully land vertically, however, came from a high school student.

In a video uploaded to YouTube on July 5 under the account of his company, JRD Propulsion, Kapoor describes his first attempt at designing a rocket model capable of performing a propulsive landing in August 2021. Three years of “development, testing and many failures” later, it was reportedly all set on May 25 after four previous launch attempts.

Unlike Barnard's iteration, Aryan Kapoor's rocket is also an original design rather than a scale replica of a SpaceX. Hacka Day Kapoor’s design relies on a stack of two solid-propellant engines, one for takeoff and one for descent and soft landing. One of the most striking aspects of Kapoor’s rocket is its overall design, which ditches stability fins in favor of thrust-vectoring controls using a 3D-printed gimbal mount. The inclusion of two servos allows the stack to rotate plus and minus 7 degrees in two directions. All of this is then controlled by a custom computer network, an inertial measurement unit, and a barometric altimeter. In his video, Kapoor explains that creating the thousands of lines of software code was “by far” the most complicated step during his years of trial and error.

[Related: SpaceX’s Starship may mess up the moon’s surface.]

After a successful liftoff, the altimeter tells the rocket's computer when to eject the first booster and switch to the second engine for a controlled descent. To make the landing a success, Kapoor attached much longer legs than a standard model, with some creative adaptations. Each leg is equipped with a repurposed syringe and rubber bands that act as shock absorbers, allowing the rocket to further cushion its landing.

Interestingly, Kapoor's rocket successfully made its first landing despite some internal problems. During its ascent, the system failed to eject its first stack of spent propellant, which added unintended extra weight during the controlled descent. This caused the model's elastic legs to bounce slightly upward after initial contact, technically meaning it landed upright not once, but twice.

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