UW News

April 16, 2012

Faster, higher each year: UW rockets fly again in Nevada

UW News

Rockets built by students of Robert Winglee, professor and chair of Earth and space sciences, pierced the Nevada sky once again in March, flying faster and higher than in any previous year.

“Were getting farther up,” said Winglee. “We set some records for our efforts at the University of Washington.”

Thirty students traveled with Winglee to Black Rock, Nev., in mid-March — “a logistical nightmare,” he said — for the fourth year of testing their creations.

“We take all our own electronics; we have an RV from a volunteer who provides us power and we break out our own base camp, our electronics ground station and antennas. We have to take all the gear from here to Nevada — we even stop and pick up Porta-Potties in California,” he said.

This year, the student-built rockets reached an altitude of 25,000 feet — besting last year by 5,000 feet — and a speed of Mach 2.2, or more than twice the speed of sound. A commercial airliner, by comparison, cruises at about 35,000 feet and at 450 to 500 miles per hour, substantially lower than Mach 1, the speed of sound.

The class, called Rockets and Instrumentation, has a section in fall and again in winter, when the students head to Nevada.

“In previous years weve had some issues trying to get past Mach 1. Our rockets would always break up at Mach 1, and weve partially solved some of those,” Winglee said. “Basically, you would cross Husky Stadium in one-tenth of a second.”

Among successes this year was the launch of a two-stage rocket and a cluster rocket. One aspect was less successful: Winglee said the group had hoped to try a balloon-launching system for their rockets but high winds prevented that.

But even the failures are educational, he said.

“The great thing about working with the students was that despite that setback they came up with a solution … so we still did a tube launch, but we improved the technology.”

With Winglees “full-system engineering approach,” students are responsible for all aspects of the flights from launch to recovery, including on-board electronics.

“Students are given a basic board, but they have to wire it up and put antennas in. … The life and death of the rocket depends solely on the flight computer,” he said.

The 30 student rocketeers aren’t all Earth and space sciences majors – they represent a number of academic areas and skill levels.

“Weve set it up so that its interdisciplinary,” Winglee said. “Theyre all mixed. Weve got physics and weve got Earth and space sciences, computer science, mechanical engineers, aeronautics and astronautics engineers.

“Of course you do need the rocket guys for the rocket motors but you need structural engineers to ensure integrity and you need computer scientists and electrical engineers to do the flight computers.”

He added that the way most technology is developed, “its not a single component that’s important, it’s the whole system, so were trying to put that into context for the students.”

The interdisciplinary nature is important, he said. “Some of the great system failures have been scientists not talking to engineers, and so were really trying to encourage that environment.”

He added that failures are acceptable in the students’ rocketry, “as opposed to NASA.”