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‘Rocket fever’ launches UB students to engineering competition in New Mexico

The UB SEDS team poses for photo after putting the rocket on the launch rail. From left: August Bartoszewicz, Owen Langrehr, Peter Wilkins, Sayre Stowell and Jonathan Przybyla.

By EMILY SUGARMAN

Published September 8, 2017

Ten students from UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences took a long drive from Buffalo to the desert of New Mexico in late June, with a rocket called Volans Tauri in tow.

It was so hot, recalls Pete Wilkins, a rising senior majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering, that even under a tent, his camp chair melted from the 110-degree heat — and it was set up under a tent.

The group from UB SEDS — Students for the Exploration and Development of Space — was taking part in the First Annual Spaceport America Cup at the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition hosted by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA) in Las Cruces.

Just after ignition, Volans Tauri cleared the rail and began its powered ascent.

The ESRA website proclaims that students who take part in the contest have “‘Rocket Fever’ and competition motivates them to extend themselves beyond the classroom to design and build these high-flying machines themselves. These students also learn to work as a team, solving real-world problems under the same pressures of cost, schedule and technical risk that they’ll experience in their future careers.”

The UB students competed with 45 other teams in the “10,000-foot Consumer off the Shelf” category, in which motors were factory-manufactured but rockets were designed and built by each team. There were five other categories, among them higher target altitudes and student-made motors.

Students were judged based on a number of criteria, such as poster and podium sessions, written technical and safety reports, amount of student-developed systems, the teams’ professionalism, and the quality and competency of the rocket design and performance.

Each teams’ rocket and strategy were unique: The height and width, the fins, the weight, electronic use for deployment, parachute designs, tracking techniques and more would influence their performance.

The UB team came in 21 out of 45 — a significant accomplishment, the students say, considering it was the first year the team had competed and the team was comprised solely of undergraduates. Volans Tauri shot up 7,400 feet, with a successful recovery.

While team members were content with their overall performance, they considered this year to be a learning experience.

“Next year, we would like more diverse majors on the team to specialize in various aspects, such as avionics, for a larger base of knowledge and more student-designed systems,” says Wilkins, head of rocketry for UB SEDS. “We are working on strategies to better recruit students to get involved next time around. There are no restrictions on who can be involved.”

Wilkins joined UB SEDS when he was a freshman. After working on several projects, such as a solar-boat competition with UB’s student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and another rocket competition run by SEDS USA, he says he discovered the rewards of large technical projects — collaboration, innovation and fun —and the potential for SEDS’ future at UB. And that is why he encouraged members from UB SEDS to take part in the 2017 Spaceport America Cup.

“It was the next logical step,” Wilkins notes. “We’ve been working toward this.”

Gabriel Surina and Jacob Henry make adjustments to the avionics system.

In addition to Wilkins, students Spencer Woodyard, Owen Langrehr, August Bartoszewicz, Sayre Stowell, Jacob Henry, Gabriel Surina, Ben Chittley, Jonathan Przybyla and Daniel Miller attended the competition.

UB SEDS holds a variety of events and activities on campus and in the greater Buffalo area, including astronomy meetups, where students have the opportunity to use telescopes; a high-altitude weather balloon team; educational outreach at the Buffalo Museum of Science; and themed social gatherings for members.

Paul DesJardin, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, serves as the group’s faculty adviser.