The Concept

The T-REX (Tracking Rocket EXperiments) project’s main goal is to track rocket launches. Why is this important? The pessimist answer would be failure analysis. Video footage is quintessential in determining what exactly went wrong.

But even if everything goes according to plan, footage is still vital. One can use it for flight analysis, triangulating the position of the rocket and also very importantly, as entertainment. Nearly all rocket launches nowadays are broadcasted live. Popular launches are viewed by millions of people. Igniting rockets ignites passion and curiosity in the viewers. However, to this day, the tracking of launches is mainly done by hand. T-REX aims to change this.

The first iteration of T-REX was originally a spin-off project of Daedalus. A previous rocket suffered a rapid unscheduled disassembly mid-flight. To this day, it remains unexplained. Partly owing to the fact that no flight footage of the critical time point exists. We want to prevent such situations.

One could say, why not just put a camera on a tripod facing the launching position and press record? Well, this would be enough to record things at the very first second of the launch but useless for the remainder of the flight. You always want to have the rocket captured with a good resolution. And a static camera would have to be very zoomed out to capture a complete rocket launch, providing a very bad resolution of the rocket.

Therein lies the first major challenge of our project. Rockets tend to travel very far away from their original launch site. Meaning that far zoomed in optics are required to deliver that resolution. But these optics need to be pointed precisely to keep the rocket in their narrow FOV (Field of View).

There arises the second major challenge. Rockets move. Fast. We currently focus on model rockets and sounding rockets. These have a very low mass compared to the bigger rockets like the good old Saturn V or the Falcon Heavy, with which most people would associate the term “rocket” .
In the first few seconds of the launch it is very difficult to keep such a rocket inside the FOV. The rocket is close and accelerates very fast. Therefore a rocket tracker needs a very high angular acceleration to keep up with these little beasts.

As the rockets are first at close proximity and later on several kilometers away from the tracker, our approach is to use multiple cameras with different levels of zoom mounted on the same mechanical axis. A further use of multiple cameras is to view the rocket in different ranges of the electro-optical spectrum. This could be used to make a exhaust flame more visible and thus very easy to track. We already tried this in the NIR spectrum.

T-REX 1 started out small, with a low budget and a handful of motivated members. But of course it has evolved.