Correction appended June 29, 2015.
What started out as an ambitious idea became reality for a group of students on June 17, when the McGill Rocket Team presented its first rocket. The team held a public exhibition of the rocket, named “Peregrine” after the falcon, at Lower Field throughout the day, followed by an official unveiling ceremony at the Frank Dawson Adams building in the evening.
The McGill Rocket Team is the latest addition to the numerous engineering design teams on campus. The team worked over the span of four months to build a recoverable rocket capable of reaching an altitude of 10,000 feet and releasing a 10-pound payload. These are the requirements for the basic category of the tenth annual Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), which took place near Green River, Utah from June 24 to 27.
The rocket, which measures 9.5 feet in length with a diameter of 5.5 inches, is made of fibreglass and weighs approximately 40 pounds. The team used 3D-printed fins and a Von Karman nose cone to reduce aerodynamic drag. The rocket will be using solid fuel as propulsion and activate gunpowder charges to release the payload at 10,000 feet. The team chose a solar-powered glider as their payload which contains various sensors and instruments and will transmit data as it descends. If all goes well, parachutes will deploy once the payload has been released and both the rocket and payload will be recovered.
“We are in an era where there is talk of space exploration and commercial space travel. It’s very exciting to have the possibility of contributing to this.”
The McGill Rocket Team was founded by engineering students Aissam Souidi and Muhammad Hamza Tikka in October 2014. The team has picked up momentum since and grown to its current size of 70 students from a variety of faculties, including Science, Management, Arts, and Engineering.
Aissam Souidi, cofounder of the team, said, “When I came to McGill, I really wanted to get involved with something that has a real impact on the community. […] We are in an era where there is talk of space exploration and commercial space travel. It’s very exciting to have the possibility of contributing to this,” in an interview with The Daily.
Souidi believes the insights gained by the team experimenting on small scale rockets could potentially have implications “for bigger rockets made by [aerospace] companies like SpaceX.”
With one of the main costs in space expeditions being rockets, which are used to launch cargo and shuttles, building a reusable rocket would significantly reduce the cost of going to space. According to Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, “If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred.” The reduced costs could make space tourism and even space colonies on Mars a reality. SpaceX is currently testing its reusable rocket, Falcon 9, by trying to land it on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean after completing International Space Station resupply missions. The company has made two unsuccessful attempts so far; however, in the second attempt, SpaceX managed to land the rocket on the barge briefly, before it toppled due to the high speed of descent. More attempts to land the rocket have already been scheduled.
Unfortunately, unlike SpaceX, the McGill Rocket Team does not have millions to spend, nor does it have experts working for it. Instead, it depends on community fundraising efforts and its members’ motivation to learn and contribute. The team has relied on sponsors and crowdfunding on sites like Seeds of Change, an online fundraising platform for student groups at McGill.
Among the faculty in attendance at the unveiling ceremony was James Nicell, dean of the Faculty of Engineering. Nicell told the Daily “In all our design teams, students are on a very voluntary basis outside of the classroom. [They are] taking all the knowledge they gain in the classroom and are actually putting it into action in their designs […]. There is no better learning opportunity than that,” Nicell said.
“For sure in the next couple of years we would like to to improve on it, make it more efficient, and hopefully start winning the competition, [IREC], on an annual basis.”
Andi Rayhan, a U2 Computer Science student and a member of the McGill Rocket Team, spoke to The Daily about the self-learning involved in the project. “I am proud of the team, because this was our first year and to have finished this project in such a short time is, I’d say, impressive.” Rayhan added, “Not many of us had any previous experience, so we had to a lot of learning, self learning. [For example,] I had to learn about sensors and how to build circuits since I am not an electrical engineer.”
Kyle Weissman, a U2 Mechanical Engineering student, is part of the payload sub-team. With little prior experience in rocket-building, Weissman often reached out to professors, as well as advisors from high school. “Engineering is not a closed environment. You really have to be comfortable communicating and asking,” he said. “We are a team of 70; there is no assumption which we [make] do by ourselves, it’s a constant back and forth between team members and friends.”
Despite the challenge, for Weissman, “having an idea, designing it on Computer-Aided Design (CAD), and moving through physical iterations to have a beautiful product,” is worth the extra effort.
Looking ahead, Souidi acknowledges there is currently a low ratio of women to men on the team and says he will try to improve this next year by collaborating with Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering, also known as POWE.
The team members recognize that this is only their first rocket and believe their product will only keep getting better with time.
Steven Crisafi, a U4 Mechanical Engineering student who worked in the aerodynamics sub-team said, “This is a very basic rocket, we only had a few months to design and build it. For sure in the next couple of years we would like to to improve on it, make it more efficient, and hopefully start winning the competition, [IREC], on an annual basis.”
A previous version of this article stated that the IREC took place at Utah State University, while it actually occurred near Green River, Utah. The Daily regrets the error.