Last year, Cal Poly Pomona’s rocketry team was invited to participate in a prestigious competition sponsored by NASA. The team spent months building and perfecting a rocket that could fly as high as a mile at speeds reaching hundreds of miles an hour.
But they were never able to participate in the competition. Months of hard work came crashing down when a parachute failed to deploy during a test flight. The rocket was badly damaged, and the team was out of the running before the competition even began.
They say they’re not going to let that happen this year. They’ve once again been invited to NASA’s Student Launch competition — only one of two California schools asked to participate — and they’ve learned some lessons from last year.
“Don’t focus too much and miss the big picture,” says Team Lead David Chaloukian. “And you have to have a recovery system that works.”
This year’s team has the advantage of learning from the mistakes of teams that came before them, says Aerospace Engineering Professor Don Edberg, who serves as team advisor.
“Both previous years they’ve managed to destroy or heavily damage their rockets,” Edberg says. “Like much of science and engineering, much is learned by failures too.”
The competition challenges student teams to build a rocket capable of carrying a scientific payload to a predetermined altitude. Points are awarded based on a series of criteria: Team presentations and written proposals; how close the rocket comes to achieving the target altitude, this year, nearly two miles; how well the rocket deploys its payload; and if the scientific payload is able to successfully identify potential obstacles on the ground.
The team says things are going well so far. This year’s rocket, dubbed Project Phoenix, will stand almost 10 feet tall and will weigh about 30 pounds. The team is building everything but the motors themselves — the carbon fiber body, the fins, the nose cone, the scientific instruments and even the parachute.
“We have to sew our own parachutes, so we have green and gold fabric,” says Alisa Anderson, manufacturing engineer for the team.
They’ve already successfully launched their parachute system, and they are preparing conduct a test launch of a half-scale version of their rocket later this month. According to their calculations, the rocket will reach Mach 0.64, more than half the speed of sound or nearly 500 miles per hour.
“To put that in perspective, that’s about how fast airliners travel at,” says John Costa, chief systems engineer.
To read more about Project Phoenix, visit the team’s website at sites.google.com/site/cppstudentlaunch/.