They’re aiming high: a team of 30 students from ETH Zurich, the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) are hoping that the rocket they have developed will win them a top spot among the 50 or so teams competing in the Spaceport America Cup 2019. For that, their rocket has to reach an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,048 metres) as precisely as possible and then use a parachute to loft gently back to the ground. Only then do they have a shot at winning the world’s largest student competition in rocketry.
Since last autumn, the students have devoted every free minute to working on their rocket. The project was launched by the Akademische Raumfahrt Initiative Schweiz (ARIS). It was founded in 2017 by Oliver Kirchhoff, then a Master's student at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH Zurich. Today, the space enthusiast is active as president of the initiative. “It’s a purely voluntary project,” explains Felix Dannert, a Master’s student in his second semester of physics at ETH. “We’re not earning any credits towards our degrees with this, but we are learning plenty that we can apply both in our studies and then out in the real world.”
Special air brakes
One thing they’re learning is technical know-how. To qualify for the Spaceport America Cup, the rockets have to meet certain requirements. Engineering expertise, an understanding of material properties and control technology, plus knowledge of programming or electrical engineering are indispensable in building such rockets. For example, not only do the rockets have to attain an altitude of 10,000 feet and have a parachute for the landing, but they also have to carry small scientific experiments that are to be conducted during the approximately 25-second flight. “One of the experiments we have on board is testing whether it’s possible to harness energy from the rocket’s vibration,” Dannert says. In addition the rocket features special air brakes that allow it to attain the required 10,000-foot altitude as precisely as possible.