UW News

April 1, 2010

UW students use spring break to launch rockets in Nevada desert

A group of 12 University undergraduates and two graduate students, along with three faculty and staff members, spent a big part of spring break in the Nevada desert trying to launch a rocket to 20,000 feet altitude at speeds well beyond the speed of sound while transmitting data to the ground.

During the week of March 21, the group — including students from electrical engineering, computer science and engineering, aeronautics and astronautics, Earth and space sciences and physics — spent several days at Black Rock Desert, a dry lakebed in northwestern Nevada. The students worked during the fall and winter quarters to design and build the rockets and flight control computer and to develop various scientific diagnostic packages.

The first attempt at supersonic flight came the afternoon of March 22. The students first launched a rocket 2 inches in diameter that reached about 12,000 feet in altitude and broke the sound barrier. After that launch, the rocket was recovered intact, outfitted with a larger motor and sent up again, this time reaching 18,000 feet and a speed of Mach 1.96, or nearly 1,300 miles per hour — nearly twice the speed of sound.

“The students were miffed that it didn’t quite make Mach 2, even though I would have conceded Mach 2,” said Earth and space sciences Chairman Robert Winglee, who who was part of the group.

The group launched several other rockets, testing various constructions and systems. Among them was a rocket employing the group’s first-ever hybrid motor, which, after an initial launch was reloaded into a 6-inch-diameter rocket and the group was able to record an onboard movie during the launch.

“Unfortunately, the chute snagged the camera on the way down and we again had a hard landing that snapped the body into 3 pieces this time,” Winglee said. “The students were thoughtful enough to return the rocket to me reassembled with duct tape. I’m pretty sure that rocket will not fly again.”

The group tried to reach maximum speed using a 3-inch-diameter carbon fiber rocket body, which passed the speed of sound before the rocket body disintegrated. Finally, a fiberglass rocket body reached nearly twice the speed of sound before it, too, disintegrated.

“All in all the students obtained valuable experience in moving concepts from the textbook into the field, and while there were failures the group has gone higher and faster than the previous year,” Winglee said.