March 21, 2018

Rocketeers prepare for April competition in Kansas

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – The world watched in awe this winter as Elon Musk launched his Falcon Heavy rocket, complete with “Starman” aboard his Tesla Roadster, into space.

Meanwhile back on Earth, some students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale were mapping out their own rocket-propelled journey, with the first destination scheduled for the skies above Kansas this spring.

New student organization

Rocketeers of Southern Illinois, a student group established late in 2017, has applied for status as a registered student organization. The group, currently made up of nine engineering and science students, spent the early part of 2018 building rockets to compete at The Argonia Cup next month in Kansas.

The group used funds provided by the Office of Vice Chancellor for Research, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Energy Processes and a donation from the Office of the Chancellor to purchase the materials they needed to build the rockets and qualify for the competition.

Adam Vogel, a junior in civil engineering who started the group and currently serves as its president, said he and a friend built rockets in high school, and when the friend joined a rocket team at his university, Vogel decided to start one at SIU.

Learning to build a better rocket

Every rocket presents its own unique challenges, based on how it is supposed to perform.

“Our most difficult challenge was figuring out where to start,” Vogel said. “Each aspect of the rocket is somewhat dependent on the other aspects.” 

For example, the rocket’s total weight affects its center of gravity, which has to be a certain distance from the center of lift generated by its fins in order for it to maintain stable flight. 

And aside from engineering challenges, there are more basic ones, as well. 

“The amateur rocketry community loves acronyms and there isn't an easy way to decipher their meaning without a mentor,” Vogel said. “Our team is lucky enough to have two extremely helpful mentors that have guided us through the construction process, offered technical advice, and helped with launch preparations.”

Competition demands high performance

The annual Argonia Cup competition calls for rockets to reach a minimum altitude of 8,000 feet on an L Class motor, which puts out up to 5,120 Newtons. A Newton is a unit of force equal to the power needed to accelerate 1 kilogram of mass at the rate one meter second-per-second.

The team’s competition rocket is 4 inches in diameter and 8 feet tall. Members calculate the rocket should reach 10,000 feet, hitting a maximum speed 1,125 mph along the way.

After reaching the required altitude, the rocket must return a payload – in this case, a single golf ball – as close to a target as possible.

Payload delivery to use drone

It may not be Starman driving a Tesla in space, but the team does have an interesting approach to delivering its payload on target. It is using a small, 3D-printed autonomous drone, built with the assistance of the SIU Robotics Team, which will be carried aloft on the rocket.

After reaching 8,000 feet, the rocket will separate and deploy a small, stabilizing drogue parachute. When it descends to about 2,000 feet, the rocket will eject a main parachute as well as the drone carrying the payload, which will then fly to the target on the ground using GPS-guided Pixhawk flight controller.

“A drogue parachute is a relatively small parachute with a hole in the middle,” Vogel said. “The drogue chute will allow our rocket to fall fairly straight and slow, allowing us to safely eject the drone and main parachutes at our desired altitude.”

Successful tests in February

The team recently successfully conducted two tests using a rocket fitted with less powerful H Class and J Class rocket motors. The successes qualified the team to buy the much more powerful L Class motor that it will use during the April 7-8 competition in Wichita, Kan.  

But even with a smaller J Class motor, onboard instruments indicated the second test launch outperformed expectations, reaching 6,839 feet at a maximum speed of 760 mph.

Just for reference – that’s only about 8 mph short of going supersonic.

“Both of our launches went extremely well,” Vogel said. “This being our first year we have limited funding. But in the future, we hope to enter at least one large competition, such as the Spaceport America Cup or the NASA Student Launch.”

Vogel said the group also plans to lead community outreach events, such as small-scale launches at area schools, in an effort to inspire interest in STEM fields, as well as an appreciation for rocketry and aerospace programs.