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UMaine students to compete in NASA challenge

The University of Maine chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) is preparing to compete in the 2015-2016 NASA Student Launch challenge. The UMaine group will be one of 54 teams to compete in the April competition, which will be held in NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The Student Launch Challenge is an eight-month NASA-conducted project in which students will research, design, build, test and eventually launch and recover a rocket. The process includes three design reviews to ensure safety and allow students the opportunity to receive feedback on their designs; the Preliminary Design Review, a Critical Design Review and a Flight Readiness Review.

According to Nathan Roscoe, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student and the founder of the UMaine SEDS chapter, the team has completed the Preliminary Design Review that was due Nov. 6.

“If you go into the aerospace industry, it doesn’t matter if you’re working for NASA and launching rockets there, or if you’re launching rockets for the Department of Defense for the government,” Roscoe said of the importance of the design review process. “The business of launching rockets is expensive. They can kill people. They’re dangerous.”

Roscoe explained that the UMaine team was required to submit a general layout of their plan in the Preliminary Design Review. Although the design submission is not required to be conclusive, teams are expected to have planned about 95 percent of the final design.

NASA will continue to provide feedback throughout the design process to ensure that each team’s launch will be as successful as possible. However, in the actual launch industry, a mistake in the design process would result in the loss of a contract.

“That happens all of the time with these multimillion dollar companies,” Roscoe said. “This is an educational thing, so NASA is super wonderful with their feedback. Hopefully we won’t get cut if they see we aren’t ready to move on.”

Roscoe founded the UMaine SEDS chapter last year in hopes of creating a community of students who are interested in space. While the number of students in the chapter tends to fluctuate depending on the type of project the group is working on, there are generally 10 to 15 students involved at a time.

The chapter initially formed without a core project, but the team soon found themselves designing a rocket for a competition held by the national SEDS organization. Although they did not build or launch their design, they were required to develop a two-stage rocket, which is more complex than the one-stage model they are planning for the NASA Student Launch.

The SEDS chapter also attended a rocket launch hosted by the Maine Missile Math and Science Club at the Tuckahoe Turf Farm in Berwick this fall to develop their skills and become certified to launch.

“We spent a whole semester designing rockets, but [without] the actual experience of building and launching it yourself, we totally would not have won the proposal,” Roscoe said. “Although this competition is a lot bigger than what we did last semester, we can use the same fundamentals.”

Before the critical review, the UMaine team will launch a small model of their rocket — approximately the size of a water bottle. However, before the practice launch of the full size rocket, they will need to receive a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“It’s a big deal,” Roscoe said. “You need to get FAA waivers so you don’t hit planes because, you know, that could be a really big problem.”

Although the team is unsure of when they will obtain the FAA waiver, as it will likely require a trip to Massachusetts, they are currently on the right track to successfully compete in April.

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