Press Release

UA Huntsville Space Hardware Club second nationally in CanSat contest

By SpaceRef Editor
June 25, 2008
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The Space Hardware Club at The University of Alabama in Huntsville captured second place honors nationally with its construction of CanSat, a “satellite” that has the dimensions of a soft-drink can.

The CanSat contest was a competition where no more than 10 students from any accredited university would build a device no bigger than 72 millimeters in diameter and 279 millimeters in length, the approximate size of a 12-ounce soft drink can.

The CanSat was rocketed to approximately 2,000 feet where it was ejected and deployed a parachute. Students had to build the machine to perform several tasks autonomously. The CanSat measured and recorded on-board data on temperature, pressure, velocity and altitude and transmitted that information to a ground station. Upon its landing, CanSat had to right itself on the ground and measure the surface temperature of the soil.

UAHuntsville finished second among 20 teams at the national competition in Amarillo, Texas, besting Virginia Tech, the University of Michigan and Washington University in St. Louis, each of which sponsored two teams. Other top teams listed for the competition included Penn State, Tuskegee University, Michigan Tech, Texas A&M, and the University of Texas-Arlington.

Finishing behind New Hampshire and UAHuntsville were the University of Michigan (third and fourth) and Virginia Tech (fifth).

Georgia Richardson, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and the group’s faculty sponsor, said the students get no course credit for this exercise, but get experience that will help them in their coursework. “They developed multi-disciplinary skills with this project. They had electronic systems, a power system, a mechanical system and had to work together as a team to ensure all the pieces fit together in the end.”

UAHuntsville students said the requirements for the contest were challenging beyond just building the small instrument. The technical requirements included a descent rate of no faster than 4.6 meters per second, and total descent time could not exceed seven minutes. The altitude had to be transmitted to the ground station every five seconds and if a parachute is used as a main recovery device, it must have been released within one meter of the ground. Also, CanSat could cost no more than $1,000 to build.

Dr. Richardson said the two most difficult goals were being able to communicate with the instrument through the entire flight and autonomously up-righting the instrument after landing. “The student’s vehicle performed both of these tasks flawlessly.”

Seiya Shumizu, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major from Tokyo, was project manager, and wrote most of the code for the flight-control software. He concentrated his time on software design as well as time and risk management.

“This was my first experience to lead a team project, so I was very anxious when the project started,” he said. “The success gave me confidence, but it also taught me what I should improve. For example, I underestimated the importance of time management. I sometimes failed to redirect the team when necessary. Next time, I can do better.”

Paul Watts, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major from New Jersey, served as mechanical team leader. “I had to ensure that all of the mechanical aspects of the CanSat were reliable, strong, lightweight and low cost.”

Watts aspires to become a vehicle designer. “Anything from high-performance jets to electric cars and anything between,” he said. “I want to design because it allows me to be creative while also requiring me to use what I have learned at UAH which is, so far, all stuff that I enjoy.”

Eric Becnel, a mechanical engineering major from Mandeville, La., led the design and construction of the landing system. “I was chosen for this responsibility because I have most of the machining experience on the team from working with other clubs.”

One of the key lessons Becnel said he learned from this project was the importance of testing. “This project showed me how important testing is on a system. As I started building different mechanical models, parts would break. We would sit down and figure out why that was a weak point and develop from there. Seeing how testing help find problems before launch day, it really is valuable.”

Fuhito Fukazawa, a mechanical engineering student from Tokyo, agreed that testing and teamwork are critical for such ventures. “Communication is vital in all of the projects and I also learned that testing is very important. If any of three components — mechanical, electrical, and communication — fails, the CanSat cannot fly.”

James Mulroy, a mechanical engineering student from Hortonville, Wisc., was the group’s Alternate Project Manager. He assisted the team lead, but also kept track of the project’s costs and assisted the electrical team.

Mulroy jokes that the experience will look good on a resume, but he also learned real world work experience. “When going to college and taking classes you only learn what they teach you in class. They don’t tell you what’s really going to happen on the launch range…because they can’t; it’s too complex. It’s something you can only learn by experiencing it. This project gave me that — experience.”

Richardson said the CanSat is the next step for the students to construct a larger satellite — the CubeSat. “They have done several BalloonSat instruments (weather balloons) as the first step, ” she said. “Balloon payload can be relatively large and heavy (~12 pounds) compared to a CubeSat (~2.2 pounds), so this CanSat step helps them learn how to do things in small packages. The BalloonSat step helps them learn how to build things that will survive in space. The balloons go up to 100,000 feet where the environment is very similar to the on-orbit environment of a CubeSat.”

The CanSat competition is sponsored nationally by the AIAA, AAS, Naval Research Lab and NASA. The Space Hardware Club was supported by the Alabama Space Grant Consortium, the UAHuntsville Student Government Association, and the university’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department and Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research.

For more information:

Ray Garner, (256)UAH-NEWS

SpaceRef staff editor.