Two launches and a team record for MIT’s rocketeers

MIT Rocket Team
July 13, 2017

In national competition, MIT team's rocket "Virgo" soars to 31,850'



by Piper Sigrest

“Five…four…three…two…one…ignition!” At the push of a button, 600 pounds of pure thrust launch the MIT Rocket Team’s rocket, Raziel, into the air. The crowd cheers with the team as Raziel soars out of sight.

This year, the MIT Rocket Team competed in the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association’s first annual Spaceport America Cup. The Spaceport America Cup invited 116 teams from around the world to compete at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Out of the 91 teams able to attend the competition, only 63 teams managed to launch their rockets.

The Spaceport America Cup was judged based on a rocket’s technical performance; how close the rocket came to its target altitude; the condition of the rocket after recovery; technical updates and reports from the team throughout the year; safety features, such as checklists and hazard analyses; and the team’s professionalism and sportsmanship. The Cup was split into six categories based on the rocket’s propulsion system and the target altitude. There was also a secondary payload competition which awarded teams for innovative scientific payloads. “Spaceport is a fantastic opportunity for the team – it’s great to learn about the research that the other teams have done and show off our work,” said Amy Vanderhout, the MIT structures subteam lead.

On June 24, the Rocket Team launched not one, but two rockets at the Spaceport America Cup, each in a separate category.

Virgo, a beautiful seven-foot tall carbon fiber rocket, launched to an altitude of 31,850 feet (target altitude of 30,000 feet), but, unfortunately, was not recovered intact when its main parachute failed to open.

Raziel, a fiberglass rocket, stands an impressive 11 feet, 8 inches tall. Raziel flew to 10,205 feet (target altitude of 10,000 feet) and landed in reflyable condition. Raziel’s payload was an instrument that used X-ray fluorescence to determine the composition of heavy metals in the soil around the rocket’s landing site.

The awards banquet was held in the Spaceport America hangar in front of a mockup of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. When the awards were announced, the MIT Rocket Team was ecstatic to learn that Raziel earned second place in its category.

Rockets, tarantulas  sunscreen
The Rocket Team overcame challenges at the competition, to earn its success.
During the competition, the team realized it was missing critical hardware needed to assemble the rocket motors. Thanks to the team’s resourcefulness, and the generosity of other competitors, the team obtained the correct hardware and assembled its motor in time to launch. The team also had to survive in the sweltering desert for a week; several team members were put in charge of ensuring that everyone stayed hydrated and put on sunscreen. Recovery subteam lead Maddie Jansson said “Fortunately, we have spent the past year perfecting our integration process through CRIMP (Complete Rocket Integration Minus Pyrotechnics) rehearsals as well as ground tests. This thorough preparation made it possible for us to perform so well under pressure from both the elements and the time-crunch.”

While the team did not encounter any wildlife, launch site officials cautioned about tarantulas, cougars, and rattlesnakes. In spite of the difficulties and intensity of the competition, the MIT Rocket Team pulled together as friends and rocketeers to launch their rockets. Sam Austin, a freshman on the propulsion subteam and future propulsion subteam lead said, “Spaceport was a valuable experience, not only as validation of months of design, fabrication, and testing, but also as a means of networking with teams and industry leaders from around the world, sharing ideas, and forming friendships.”

To Infinity and Beyond
The MIT Rocket Team made team history at the Spaceport America Cup this year. The team launched two rockets in a single day and reached a new altitude record with Virgo’s flight to 31,850 feet. Also, the team flew a completely custom rocket (excluding the off-the-shelf motor) when it launched Raziel. With the exception of the motor, every aspect of Raziel was Student Researched and Developed (SRAD) technology. The team is positioned to finish development of a custom solid motor next year.

The Rocket Team is already brainstorming project ideas for this academic year: how high to fly, what payload to carry, how to make the rocket even better. Rocket Team 2016 – 2017 president Andrew Adams is excited about the future of the team. “All in all, the competition was an intense, fulfilling experience to cap off a groundbreaking year where the result was just the tip of the iceberg,” Andrew said. “I sincerely hope the lessons learned will go on as we continue to push higher.”

Piper Sigrest is the MIT Rocket Team’s Support Equipment team lead.