UB students take off to New Mexico and soar at First Annual Spaceport America Cup

The UB SEDS team takes a group photo after putting the rocket on the launch rail and just before they inserted the igniter in the rocket and left the launch site.  From left are: August Bartoszewicz, Owen Langrehr, Peter Wilkins, Sayre Stowell and Jonathan Przybyla.

by Emily Sugarman

Published August 23, 2017

Ten students from UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences took a long drive from Buffalo to the desert of New Mexico in late June this year, with a rocket called Volans Tauri in tow.

“Next year, we would like more diverse majors on the team to specialize in various aspects, such as avionics, for a larger base of knowledge and more student-designed systems.”
Peter Wilkins, mechanical and aerospace engineering student and head of rocketry for UB SEDS

Just after ignition, Volans Tauri cleared the rail and began its powered ascent.

Pete Wilkins, a rising senior at UB who studies mechanical and aerospace engineering and is head of rocketry for UB SEDS (Student Exploration and Development of Space), said that even under a tent, his camp-chair melted from the 110 degree heat.

The group from UB SEDS was participating in the First Annual Spaceport America Cup for the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC) hosted by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA) in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The ESRA website says that students who participate have “'Rocket Fever!’, and competition motivates them to extend themselves beyond the classroom to design and build these high flying machines themselves. These students also learn to work as a team, solving real world problems under the same pressures of cost, schedule, and technical risk they'll experience in their future careers.”

The UB team competed with 45 other teams in the “10,000-foot Consumer Off the Shelf” category, meaning motors were factory-manufactured but rockets were designed and built by each team. There were five other categories such as higher target altitudes and student-made motors.

Students were judged based on a number of criteria such as poster and podium sessions, written technical and safety reports, amount of student-developed systems, the teams’ professionalism, and the quality and competency of the rocket design and performance.

Every teams’ rocket and strategy was unique; how tall, how wide, what kind of fins, how heavy it was, electronic use for deployment, parachute designs, tracking techniques and more would influence their performance.

UB’s team came in 21 out of 45 —a significant accomplishment considering it was their first year competing and their team comprised all undergraduate students. Volans Tauri shot up 7,400 feet with a successful recovery.

While the team was content with their overall performance, they saw this year as a learning experience to figure out what they didn’t know and how to be more competitive next year.

“Next year, we would like more diverse majors on the team to specialize in various aspects, such as avionics, for a larger base of knowledge and more student-designed systems,” Wilkins said. “We are working on strategies to better recruit students to get involved next time around. There are no restrictions on who can be involved.”

Wilkins joined UB SEDS when he was a freshman, and after working on several projects such as a solar-boat competition with UB’s student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and another rocket competition run by SEDS USA, he discovered the rewards of large technical projects — collaboration, innovation, and fun —and the potential for SEDS' future at UB. That is why he encouraged members from UB SEDS to participate in the 2017 Spaceport America Cup.

“It was the next logical step. We’ve been working towards this,” Wilkins said.

In addition to Wilkins, Spencer Woodyard, Owen Langrehr, August Bartoszewicz, Sayre Stowell, Jacob Henry, Gabriel Surina, Ben Chittley, Jonathan Przybyla and Daniel Miller attended the competition.

UB SEDS holds a variety of events and activities on campus and in the greater Buffalo area —astronomy meet-ups where students have the opportunity to use telescopes, a high altitude weather balloon team, educational outreach at the Buffalo Museum of Science, and themed social gatherings for members.

The faculty advisor for UB SEDS is Paul DesJardin, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. To get involved, e-mail Wilkins at peter.wilkins@ubseds.org, or attend one of the SEDS general body meetings, which are held at 5:15 on Mondays in Furnas 206.

Gabriel Surina and Jacob Henry make adjustments to the avionics system.