Mission accomplished for rocket team
By Ron Takata
By Ron Takata
'Elima ... 'Eha ...
'Ekolu ... 'Elua ... 'Ekahi ... Aloha!
After a countdown in the Hawaiian language, Honolulu Community College student Thomas Pollard pressed the firing button, and a 9-foot-tall ARLISS class rocket carrying HCC's CanSat — satellite in a can — instrument package roared into the clear, blue desert sky at Black Rock, Nev.
That September day marked the culmination of a yearlong project for students in HCC's Computer Electronics and Network Technology program, and had them competing with an array of universities from the United States, Japan and Spain.
A streak of flame powered the satellite-mimic device two miles above the dry lakebed. Soon the device was too small to see, and only a smoke trail marked its trajectory. Then a puff of smoke marked the deployment of the CanSat, and two colored specks appeared high overhead.
HCC CanSat team member Rey Tabilin looked anxiously at his ground station computer for radio signals from a coffee can-sized electronic package as it sailed through the sky under its orange parafoil. Simultaneously, four HCC CanSat/ARLISS team members jumped into a van and chased it across the desert floor.
A YEAR'S LABOR
Over the past year, Pollard and Tabilin, Andrew Southiphong (HCC fashion technology) and Windward Community College student Damion Rosbrugh labored long and hard to conceptualize, design, construct and test their satellite-mimic device.
All four students are recipients of Hawaii Space Grant Consortium Traineeships and Internships, which are funded by NASA. The team members identified four missions.
The first mission was to acquire technical knowledge in electronics, computer programming and parachute aerodynamics.
The second mission was to construct an operational CanSat device, complete with steerable parachute technology.
The third mission was to learn to employ research resources including expert mentors, networking support from other CanSat teams nationwide, and coordinating and cooperating among UH community college campuses.
The final mission was to compete in the ARLISS competition, or A Rocket Launch for International Student Satellites, at Black Rock.
Under the direction of Robert Allen, a University of Hawai'i community college student coordinator, and with the support of a phalanx of mentors, the work was parceled out. Allen and Rosbrugh developed the electronics package and computer programming.
Tabilin, Pollard and Southi-phong researched and developed the steerable parafoil technology. Southiphong designed and sewed two parafoils that successfully flew three CanSats in the ARLISS Competition.
Throughout the ARLISS project, the group worked late into the early morning hours soldering, drilling, fastening, programming and testing the three CanSat devices.
HCC had an extra challenge to overcome: Three weeks before the ARLISS competition, the team's entire CanSat hardware package had been stolen from a student's car. That forced them to reorder the parts and start again from scratch. Thanks especially to Allen's hard work, their CanSat was ready and engaged in a successful launch.
Back to the drama at the lakebed.
With pedal to the metal, and eyes focused on the fast-drifting orange parafoil — high winds pushed the CanSat 1.7 miles from the launching pad — the van threw up a dust cloud as it raced across the baked desert floor.
Lower and lower, closer and closer, a tiny dot, then a small rectangular speck grew larger and larger. Soon it was floating down, a billowing orange wing, and it was turning clockwise, the way the electronically controlled servo motor was supposed to do. Then gently, it landed, as graceful as a bird.
The eagle had landed to the wild hoots of the team. The radio communication system had disengaged during the high G-forces of launch, but it was simply seen as a challenge that would be solved during the next trek.
The spirits of the students were as high as the rocket flights.
These students grew in technical knowledge, and also learned lessons in time, human-resource management and networking.
In the words of CanSat technical mentor Vern Takebayashi: "I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would see HCC students perform the kind of engineering that our CanSat team performed in designing, testing and building our CanSat module."
The team members are all interested in continuing their trek and are redefining this year's goals and schedule.
Ron Takata, Ph.D., is a professor of chemistry at Honolulu Community College.