CEDAR FALLS — Cedar Falls High School rocket club students reached the stratosphere during a recent national contest.
The club earned fifth place during the Team America Rocketry Challenge near Washington, D.C., on May 13.
Science, Technology And Rocketry Students club members launched a 41-inch tall cardboard tube rocket with plywood fins that carried a raw egg. The flight needed to achieve the contest’s distance and time parameters all while keeping the egg from cracking.
Five of the seven S.T.A.R.S. club members went on the trip and took home $7,500 in winnings they will split for the fifth-place finish. Another $1,000 is going to the club, which was established three years ago.
Team members also came in first during a balsa wood airplane contest at the event and will split $500 for that feat. They ended up having 15 minutes to design and build the plane because of the timing of other contests before flying it the furthest at 45 feet.
Based on an earlier qualifying launch, the team was among a select group invited to participate in the national contest.
“There was 812 (teams) that tried to go to the competition, but they only accepted 101,” said team member Will Burken, a junior. Other participating teammates included junior Ryan Ritter and sophomores Randev Goonesekere, Erik Walther and Andre Bryan.
“This year’s team was just head and shoulders above other teams we’ve had in terms of motivation and enthusiasm,” said teacher Zeb Nicholson, the club’s adviser.
It was the second time S.T.A.R.S. qualified for nationals, although all members except Ritter are new this year. In 2016, the group came in 71st place. They didn’t win anything last year because cash prizes are only awarded to the top 10 teams.
“September to April we can build, launch and send in our qualification data,” explained Nicholson. “We flew in March and were good enough to make the cut.” An official observer had to be present to sign off on the score achieved in the launch.
Scores are determined based on how close a rocket gets to staying within parameters set for the contest, with a zero being awarded for those that do. When the team competed in the national event, the rocket had to reach a height of 775 feet within 41 to 43 seconds. Teams received four points for each second more or less and one point for each foot higher or lower.
Within the rocket’s body is an altimeter. “It tells us how high we go,” said Ritter. The device is equipped with a computer chip that records the height and speed reached by the rocket.
It is held in place by a plastic part the team made using a three-dimensional printer. The chicken egg is encased in a foam mold that also fits into the tube. Other components in the rocket’s body are the engine and a parachute.
Teams were disqualified if their egg broke during the flight or landing. “We’re simulating real live payloads,” said Nicholson. The overall weight of the rocket with the egg had to be less than 650 grams.
Heat, cold and humidity can affect the rocket’s performance. “The team uses a computer simulator,” said Nicholson, to look at those factors before a launch. “The target is to be in this nice middle ground.”
The team designed and 3-D printed plastic binder clips that are connected to the fins. The added weight slows down the rocket, which uses an engine that otherwise would shoot it too high into the sky for the contest.
After the team’s initial launch, it qualified for the second round made up of the top 24 competitors. “In that second flight, they changed the requirements,” said Nicholson. Now the teams had to fly 800 feet in 42 to 44 seconds. Scoring data from both launches determined the final places for those top teams.
As one of the top 24 teams, S.T.A.R.S. has been invited to submit a 75-page proposal to participate in the NASA Student Launch. That event involves a 68-foot-tall, four-inch diameter fiberglass rocket that can fly to a height of one mile. The team’s proposal would address the rocket’s construction and payload.
If accepted, the students would work with a NASA engineer throughout the next school year, culminating in a visit to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., with other participating teams for launch week.