Space explorers to build high-powered rocket for NASA Student Launch program

PatchThe University of Maine chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) has been selected as one of 45 college teams in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s 2019 Student Launch program.

NASA’s Student Launch challenges teams to design, build, test and fly a reusable high-powered rocket carrying a payload to meet the prescribed guidelines.

Teams are chosen by a team of NASA experts based on proposal descriptions of the rocket, its recovery system, payload, safety and educational engagement plans.

The 2019 competition will be held at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama from April 4–6, and will include 52 middle school, high school and college teams from 21 states.

SEDS is an international nonprofit organization that “empowers young people to participate and make an impact in space exploration.”

The UMaine chapter, founded in 2014, comprises between 15 and 20 regular members. The club is geared toward students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors, but is open to all interested in space exploration.

David Batuski, a professor of physics, is the club’s adviser, and Shawn Laatsch, director of Emera Astronomy Center and Jordan Planetarium, is one of the group’s adult educators.  

Members have attended student space conferences throughout the eastern United States, and last month, two members received Level 1 high power rocket certification enabling them to legally operate rocket motors with a total impulse of up to 640 newton-seconds. This year, the NASA competition is the club’s primary focus.   

Tristan Underwood, a physics major and astronomy minor and president of the club, led the writing process for the UMaine team’s proposal.

“It’s a really great opportunity for students interested in the field,” says Underwood, who also works at Emera Astronomy Center. “The competition is designed to mirror the actual engineering design lifecycle that NASA uses, so the students involved get some pretty solid hands-on experience.”

Teams participate in an eight-month design, build, test and review process guided by NASA experts, resembling the real-world process of rocket development.

In past years, teams have competed to have their rocket be the closest to one mile above ground level. This year, teams will predict before launch how high their rocket will fly, and they must reach at least 3,500 feet but not more than 6,000 feet to earn altitude award points.

Teams also score payload points. College teams must select either a deployable rover with a robotic arm to collect a soil sample, or a deployable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that flies to a designated target. The UMaine team’s rocket will carry a deployable UAV of their own design.

“Designing and building a rocket from scratch is a ton of work and super stressful, but once launch day comes around you know it was worth it,” says Underwood.

“Our current simulations predict the rocket will go from zero to 900 kilometers per hour in three seconds. That’s three-fourths the speed of sound. You know it’s a fun competition if one of the rules is that you can’t break the sound barrier.”

More information about the program is online.