Student rocketeers again earn Payload Design Award at NASA competition

For the second year in a row the Vanderbilt Aerospace Club has earned the Payload Design Award at the NASA University Student Launch Initiative (USLI), a year-long program that culminated in a rocket launch event on April 17.

The other two major awards went to MIT (project review) and to Utah State University (rocket design). Student launch projects are sponsored by ATK Aerospace Systems. The annual launch event is hosted at Bragg Farms in Toney, Ala., near Huntsville, and launch services are provided by the National Association of Rocketry.

Twenty-nine university teams vied to see whose rocket could come closest to the 1-mile altitude goal and safely return to Earth with an on-board science payload during the 2010-2011 rocketry challenge. The university teams were also competing for a $5,000 prize offered by ATK Aerospace Systems.

Vanderbilt’s design of a ‘Cryogen Injection System to enhance Carnot and Seebeck efficiencies in thermoelectric generators for waste heat recovery in Aerospace Applications’ was cited by NASA as the most innovative and creative payload design while maximizing safety and science value.

“This year’s team was under great pressure to deliver an innovative payload to build on last year’s success,” said Professor A.V. Anilkumar, faculty adviser and professor of the practice of mechanical engineering. “They designed a cryogen delivery system to rapidly cool thermoelectric generators in order to improve their energy conversion efficiencies.

“The Vanderbilt team demonstrated that through cryogen injection, a low-altitude rocket flight can be used to mimic conditions in high-altitude cruising airplane flight.  Thermoelectric generators can be used for waste heat recovery in cruising airplane flight,” Anilkumar said.

USLI challenges university-level students to design, build and launch a reusable rocket with a scientific or engineering payload to one mile above ground level, or AGL.

“There was always the concern of being eliminated from the tournament if the rocket shot past 5600 feet, so the team played it safe and ballasted the rocket to reach a conservative 5000 feet instead of the target of one mile,” Anilkumar said. “The actual flight reached 4644 feet, and the team is happy as perfect altitude is no longer a major criterion in this year-long competition.”

The project engages students in scientific research and real-world engineering processes with NASA engineers.  “They go through the whole thing exhaustively like NASA engineers do,” said Rick Smith, media specialist for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Students propose to participate in USLI during the fall. Once selected, teams design their rocket and payload throughout the academic year. USLI requires a NASA review of the teams’ preliminary and critical designs. The project also requires flight readiness and safety reviews before the rockets and payloads are approved for launch.

Teams complete a Post-Launch Assessment Review to include conclusions from their science or engineering experiment and the overall flight performance. The Preliminary Design Review, Critical Design Review and Flight Readiness Review are conducted by a panel of scientists and engineers from NASA, NASA contactors and external partners.

“The USLI flight on April 17 generated high quality data that the team will analyze and submit to NASA for a final review,” said Anilkumar.  “The team had success with the payload performance in a prior flight, but the most bothersome issue was the need for a picture-perfect rocket flight with good take off and landing.  The team had a great rocket flight. “

The final two university division awards – “Rookie Team of the Year” and “Best Overall Team of the Year” – will be presented in May after teams have submitted their post-launch and science payload reports. NASA and ATK will pick the 2010-2011 champion based on those final reports, plus the teams’ preliminary presentations, results and launch-day flight data.

AeroTeam 2011
Aerospace Team: (L-R) Zach Smith, Chris Lioi, John Hoke, Ryan Taylor, Paul Allen, Kyle Bloemer, Jen Frankland, Chris Cameron, Sam Malanoski, and Ben Chociej