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Engineering 360°

WVU finishes second in intercollegiate rocket engineering competition

WVU's Experimental Rocketry Team with Dean Cilento and their rocket

Written by Brittany Furbee

WVU’s Experimental Rocketry team overcame near catastrophic setbacks to capture second place in the 10,000 foot-launch category at the second annual Spaceport America Cup.

The event, which was held on June 19-23, near Las Cruces, New Mexico, hosts student rocketry teams from all over the world to launch solid, liquid, and hybrid rockets to target altitudes of 10,000 and 30,000 feet while carrying a minimum of 8.8 pounds of payload. 

After finishing in first place in the 10,000-foot category during the 2017 competition, the WVU team was excited to defend its title and also to compete in both event categories for the first time. 

The students kicked off the competition by first launching their 12-foot long fiberglass rocket in the 30,000-foot category. The 121-pound rocket included carbon fiber reinforced fins and nosecone, an aluminum nose tip, as well as a powerful motor capable of producing 1,200 pounds of thrust. 

Despite executing a successful test launch in March, the rocket structurally failed shortly after takeoff, making the launch ineligible for judging during the competition. 

“Watching our rocket being torn into a million little pieces was disappointing to say the least,” said WVUER President Casey Wilson, a recent mechanical and aerospace engineering graduate from Wheeling. “However, our focus quickly shifted to the next category. When the rocket broke apart we lost both GPS units that were attached to it. We only brought two units with us to New Mexico and without these we knew there was little chance we could fly the 10,000- foot rocket.” 

One of the main judging components of the competition requires teams to track and retrieve data from their rocket following each launch, an impossible task without GPS units. 

“After extensive searching we arrived for the final day of the competition empty handed and unsure if we would even fly the 2017 winning rocket,” said Wilson. “To our surprise one of our competitors from Egypt discovered the remnants of our destroyed rocket’s avionics bay and brought it back to the launch site for us. We were able to then scramble to fix the non-functional GPS unit and prepare the rocket for launch.” 

The team’s unwillingness to give up paid off. Their rocket and recently redesigned motor, capable of producing 450 pounds of force, successfully launched and reached an altitude of 10,258 feet. 

Coming so close to the target altitude during the launch earned the team high scores with the judges. The team was also scored on a poster presentation that explained the rocket’s specifications as well as various technical papers and progress reports that were submitted throughout the year. They received strong scores across the board, resulting in their second place victory. 

“Preparation for this year’s competition began quite literally the day after we won last year,” said Wilson. “As we began preparing for this competition our strategy didn’t change a great deal. For us, the real strategy comes from the many months of planning, design, fabrication and testing that goes into the project. We have worked extremely hard and clearly it paid off.” 

“This is a very exciting time in the team’s history,” said Dan Bennett, an aerospace engineering major and WVU Honors College student from Newburyport, Massachusetts. Placing in the competition for the second year, especially after so many setbacks, will provide us with the momentum and confidence we need to take on even bigger challenges in the future.” 

Team members joining Wilson and Bennett in New Mexico were mechanical and aerospace engineering majors Matt Hines (Buffalo, WVU Honors College), Tucker Johnson (Richmond, Virginia), Zach Maddams (Claymont, Delaware, Honors College) and industrial engineering major Abadi Albeladi (Saudi Arabia). 

The team was sponsored by the Statler College, the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium, NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation Facility, the WVU Student Government Association and Aurora Flight Sciences.