In April 2015, four mechanical engineering students will travel to the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to launch a rocket and command a robot in a simulated mission to Mars.
This Student Launch Challenge is part of a NASA program geared toward furthering deep-space exploration. The competition allows NASA to mine new ideas and students to practice high-level applied engineering.
Team leader Max Perham discovered the challenge while searching for an Honors capstone project he felt passionate about. He rallied his fellow students Nate Fowler (payload retention), Andrew Dodd (safety officer, automated ground support equipment), and Greg Kelley (vehicle and payload recovery systems) to the cause.
Student Launch competitors design a system for a recovery mission. They must build automated ground support equipment—i.e., a robot arm—to collect a sand sample from the ground and load it into the rocket. The rocket then has to get off the planet’s surface to an apogee height of 3000 feet. The rocket section must separate at 1000 feet, retain its sample, parachute down, and remain intact when it hits the ground. This all must be accomplished without contact from the team. All rocket components must be recovered and be reusable.
To prepare, the team is doing periodic launches of the Minuteman 1, their 115-inch-long, 24-pound rocket, from a site in Amesbury, Massachusetts.
Working within a strict weight limit means any adjustment in mass made by one team member affects all the other systems. “It’s a big balancing act,” says Perham. It helps that all four have classes in ELab, where they store equipment in the newly designated Rocket Room, use 3-D printing to create prototypes, and even sometimes sleep!
The Student Launch team’s pioneering spirit is well-suited to space exploration: their team is the first from UMass to enter the competition. They will compete against teams from schools that have participated for years, and may include 20 students or more, as well as a faculty supervisor.
Dodd, Kelley, Fowler, and Perham look forward to where the next space race will take us during their lifetime: landing humans on Mars, mining asteroids for rare earth metals. Reusable rocket stages will reduce the cost of space exploration. “The commercialization of space will push tech further, and really fast,” says Fowler. “The pace is quickening.”