UND student-launch rocket project overcomes series of setbacks to successfully lift off over Utah Salt Flats


Amy Halvorson

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News Article

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College of Arts & Sciences


UND student-launch rocket project overcomes series of setbacks to successfully lift off over Utah Salt Flats

Frozen Fury, University of North Dakota's rocket team, recently produced a successful flight in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Student Launch 2014, a NASA-sponsored national rocketry competition in Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah.

The NASA program is a rigorous one, said Tim Young, UND associate professor of physics and astrophysics. This year, NASA increased the research requirements related to the payload aboard competition rockets in addition to the usual four in-depth reports and presentations that it requires.

"Our team knew it was going to be hard, going from one payload experiment, as we had done the last six years, to three payload experiments compounded the complexity beyond just three times the work," he said.

The payload experiments are aligned with current research in the new NASA Space Launch System project. Along with designing and building the rockets and payloads, UND students had to develop a website, reach more than 100 middle school students, design and sew their own parachutes for rocket retrieval, and fundraise all the money for their rocket, fuel and payload.

The Frozen Fury team faced many other challenges on their road to success, one of them being North Dakota's unpredictable spring weather.

UND competed against 31 other universities across the nation for the chance to go to Utah and launch its rocket. As part of the competition, NASA had given the universities a specific deadline to launch their rockets and submit a full analyses of the results.

Weather delay

As luck would have it, a week of bad weather impacted UND's launch timeline. The team wrote to NASA to ask for a possible extension, but without an immediate response, they pushed forward anyway to be ready for a launch at a moment's notice.

Thankfully for Frozen Fury, NASA responded and extended the test launch date by one week.

"The pressure was on to see if we had 'the right stuff' and the remaining members on the team pulled together and launched a successful flight of the test rocket on the last day before deadline," said Young.

Frozen Fury then submitted its report and played the waiting game. A few days later, NASA emailed them the exciting news that they had received a "Go," and the race to Utah was on.

The trip to Utah took place May 14-18.

The following UND students made the trip to Utah: Nicole Fitzgerald, a senior math major from Chicago; Emeke Opute, a first year graduate mechanical engineer from Nigeria; and Xuchu Xu, a sophomore mechanical engineer from China. Two members of the Frozen Fury team who were not able to make the trip were Adam Feigum, a senior physics major and Andreas Oines, who is also a senior physics major.

Able stand-in

The Frozen Fury team members arrived in Utah on different days and times leading up to the NASA Launch Readiness Review (LRR).

During the mad scramble of airplane flights, hotels, shipping the rocket and rescheduling three days' worth of finals, Fitzgerald, the acting team lead, ran into flight cancelation problems and wasn't able to arrive in time for the LRR. This was yet another challenge the Frozen Fury team had to face in its pursuit of success, as Fitzgerald was the team member who had prepared to present a full detailed report of the rocket to the NASA officials. This left the newest member of the team, Xuchu Xu, to present the project.

"I was pacing in and out of the LRR room trying to give advice and at the same time contacting Fitzgerald for documents that we didn't have," Young said. "It was nerve racking to possibly come this far and not pass."

Xu spent a grueling one and a half hours with NASA and National Association of Rocketry officials and was passed, but with a list of items that needed to be corrected by the next day.

"We finished the required corrections with only minutes to spare and continued to be in the running for our rocket to fly above the Salt Flats," said Young.

Last test

The last hurdle that the Frozen Fury had to overcome was to be approved by the range safety officer, ensuring the UND rocket's "sloshing payload" didn't leak any water, otherwise it wouldn't be able to fly.

"NASA is interested in sloshing to make sure that liquid fuel is not wasted in zero-gravity situations," said Young. UND's rocket is part of that sloshing experiment, and up until the day of the actual launch, it had been plagued with leaks. But thanks to some quick problem solving, Frozen Fury members fashioned a bag onto their rocket to prevent it from leaking.

Finally, the rocket had passed all of the inspections and was ready for take-off as one of the 16 rockets that had made it that far in the competition.

UND's rocket soared 5,433 feet and came down with its two parachutes intact. And Frozen Fury's on-board experiment successfully collected video footage of liquid movement in microgravity.

Mission success!