Two years ago, a group of students from Missouri University of Science and Technology were involved in an informal rocketry challenge with some would-be rocket scientists from Iowa State University. The Iowa State program didn’t get off the ground that year, but the Missouri S&T students built a 12-foot-tall rocket that reached speeds approaching 1,000 mph and a height of 19,000 feet.
“That really got us into the rocketry thing,” says Dave Althuis, a member of Missouri S&T’s Advanced Aero Vehicle Team.
Althuis and the other S&T team members were already involved in building advanced remote-controlled airplanes for annual competitions. But this rocket thing had captured their imaginations.
They discovered an annual NASA competition called the University Student Launch Initiative. Last year, the S&T team finished third out of 12 teams in the competition, which is held each spring in Huntsville, Ala.
The main goal for teams in the NASA challenge is to send a scientific payload one mile into the air. A mile is 5,280 feet. While commercial airliners cruise at 30,000 feet, competition organizers are still required to notify the Federal Aviation Administration before allowing launches.
The S&T team has been known to engineer rockets using common items like paper towel rolls, but they took their first NASA competition very seriously.
“We used ammonium perchlorate — which is rocket fuel,” says Althuis, a junior in mechanical and aerospace engineering from St. Peters, Mo. “It’s the same thing they use to fuel the white shuttle boosters for Space Shuttle launches.”
The students employ an electrical charge to ignite the motor. Some of the rockets in the University Student Launch Initiative blow up on the launching pad, according to Althuis.
The 2008 S&T team successfully launched a Rocket Data Acquisition System as its payload. The system monitored conditions like altitude in real time as the S&T rocket soared. In 2009, the team plans to launch a payload that measures pressures during flight.
The students are currently putting the final design touches on the rocket for 2009. Then they’ll build and test a small model before starting work on a larger rocket. They must launch a full-sized model at least once prior to the official competition.
The 2009 competition will be held in April in Huntsville.