The Martians Have Landed

Space travel is fraught with risk. There’s the outbound voyage, long and boring (think Kansas), the terror of the unknown inter-planetary void and finally the touch down on the surface of ________(enter name of your favorite planet/moon).

Imagine if there were an asteroid or a pre-positioned docking station that could serve as a mid-trip “rest stop” to stretch your legs and check the tires on your space vehicle. Or stay awhile while NASA sends out a rescue vehicle.

There is such a place, and it bears a striking resemblance to a Target store. It’s in Dillon, Colorado where the Mars Rover mothership/trailer was towed when it lost its brakes coming out of the Eisenhower Tunnel last week.

En route to the University Rover Challenge in Utah, Alyssa McCarthy’s “Rove” group camped out in the Target parking lot to wait for rescue that came in the form of solar car team members John Schoeberle and Conner Kostelac. Timing was critical because they had to arrive in Hanksville, Utah in just two days.

While the Dodge rescue ship was prepared for launch/stripped of its warp-speed limiters the team used the time to rehearse the same actions they’d take in Utah so the “mission” would stay on schedule. While John and Conner streaked across the barren landscape of Kansas and eastern Colorado* a local garage (cash only) fixed the mothership’s brakes.

Local media caught wind of the impromptu base camp and wrote it up here. Target shoppers stopped by to talk to the Miners and see Zenith while store managers fretted about violating the city’s ban on camping. An S&T alum stopped by to offer encouragement and an old hippie couple showed up to ask for duct tape and coffee. Sorry, no coffee.

Ultimately the wanderers made it to Hanksville in time and did well, winning the new Phobos Division at the University Rover Challenge and were honored with the John Berenka Science Award. Read more a about it on the Rover team’s Facebook page.

*No law enforcement personnel were inconvenienced in the performance of this mission.

They’re BACK!

15+ student-led design teams, doing who-knows-what, have come back from winter break all fired up to build things.
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Concrete Canoe poured their new boat and filled it with water so it cures slowly. No one has slipped any goldfish or frogs into it. So far.

Several teams have been making a mess cutting high-density machining foam. The dust makes the shop floors awfully slippery.
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Everyone pitched in to make the place sparkling clean for the UM System President’s visit, which didn’t actually happen. Good news is that teams found all kinds of missing stuff.

Our HPER rocket scientists are becoming DIY explosives “experts.” In a scenario tailor made for YouTube they’re mixing their own rocket fuel/propellant; in the SDELC conference room it was feared, but that was just practice. “Oh, no! We’ll tell you when we’re mixing REAL explosives!” was the response. Comforting words….
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Solar car has been laying up molds for the revamped vehicle. They use a choreographed/chaotic system of applying slow-cure epoxy and heavy fiberglass mats, then repeating the process to produce upper and lower body molds that look terrible on the outside, but on the inside, smooth as a KU football player’s backside.

No offense intended.

The Best Birthday Present EVER!

And the story behind it…

Let us first introduce to you, Richard Dalton, shop and safety operations manager at S&T’s Student Design and Experiential Learning Center.

Richard has a slightly mellow personality, but he shoulders tremendous responsibility at the center. He teaches dozens of technical and safety classes, oversees OrgSync and all the sophisticated software needed to design student projects, buys (or steals) and maintains a barn full of lathes, mills, grinders, welders, and composite layup equipment, machines that well-meaning (but inexperienced) students seem to trash as fast as he can fix it.

Richard also teaches truck/trailer drivers’ education classes after normal(?) duty hours. It’s a wonder he hasn’t burst a blood vessel trying to show students how to back up a 28-foot trailer, or park a big dually pickup truck. Stressful at best…

He’s a master mechanic, superb machinist and even built his own home. A computer/IT wizard, YouTube aficionado, and has been deployed to Afganistan with the Army Reserve.

DSC_7810His office is his inner sanctum, his personal retreat where few are welcome. It’s home to several video monitors, his personal tool set, and the occasional canoe when things get too crowded in the shop. It’s even been known to house a few hundred plastic Easter eggs lovingly placed where it’ll take him months to find them.

But.

DSC_3246Many months ago, Richard’s very expensive and custom-fitted office chair went missing. He was very “close” to that chair and distraught when it disappeared, as similar chairs just wouldn’t “fit.” There were rumors it rolled away DSC_6536 (1) on its own, to go “find itself” and travel the world. Sightings were reported all over the western U.S., often in the vicinity of traveling S&T design teams it was said.
But it never resurfaced.

Fast forward to Irvine, California with the Solar House Design Team and their Nest Home at the Solar Decathlon; high-energy house reassembly under strict time constraints. Richard absolutely WOWED the students with his skills, enthusiasm and experience, and with his birthday on the horizon the students were desperate to show their appreciation to “’Mater,” as he’s known on campus. What to do?

The house has to be furnished, right? What if, just IF, they could find the errant furniture, wouldn’t it be great to bring it “home”? If they COULD recover it, how could they possibly sneak it into the Nest Home as a proper surprise? What on-hand equipment could they use?

Well, there IS that big crane sitting right outside, and since Richard (that’s him on the left) was busy talking……….
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And THAT is the story of the best birthday present EVER!

P.S. Too bad the crane operator wouldn’t haul him up about 100 ft. Stupid OSHA rules…..

Got Facebook? Watch the Solar Car Video!

There’s a new video on the Solar Car Team’s Facebook page!

Check it out at Missouri S&T Solar Car Team on FB?

(Translation: This elderly blogger doesn’t know how to link it into the blog post.)

A Solar Car Race and You Want Clouds???

Who knew?

Overcast skies made the first hours of racing kinda slow this morning, but about 11:00 a.m. the skies cleared and the cars really sped up.

For a few hours.

And then it got hot. Really hot.

And the battery packs got hot. Really hot.

So hot the Solar Miner VIII crew is praying for clouds.
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The Miners have slowed down in an attempt to keep the batteries from reaching their thermal limit. If clouds sweep in and temps drop the batteries will cool, and they can forget about the array and run off the batteries until the ‘tank’ is empty.

We think this description is accurate.

Tires Are Becoming a Hot Commodity!

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Despite yesterday’s near disaster, the Miners are tied for 3rd place in the Formula Sun Grand Prix. The car is running very smoothly, but the team is concerned about running out of tires.

Rumors are the top five teams are chewing through tires at an alarming rate because of the stifling heat. It’s 101 degrees right now, four degrees higher than yesterday, and the breezes have dropped off to near nothing.
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You can’t just run down to the Pep Boys store to buy a a set of these limited edition, 90-PSI rubber wonders. You only have what you bring, and that has led to some interesting negotiations.

A few teams didn’t make it through scrutineering and haven’t been approved for the track, so they’re sitting on a stockpile of increasingly valuable tires. The stronger crews are “buddying up” to their less-successful brethren in hopes of scoring a set or two of tires.
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The tires, about the size of a kid’s BMX bike tire, are pricey at $100 each or more. School/state bureaucracies frown on selling state property for cash, and are even more reluctant to accept IOUs for payment. We’re pretty sure next week some teams will go hat-in-hand to their purchasing people to say “uh, could you please send a multi-hundred dollar check to the State University of XYZ? No, we don’t have a receipt and we eventually threw away the tires we “bought.”

Good luck with that.

#42 is in First Place on Lap #42!

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Half way through Day 1 it’s an incredibly close race. After about 170 miles/53 laps four teams are within two laps of each other. #42 started fifth in line and gradually clawed their way into 1st place and held that for over two hours, all the way through the symbolic 42nd lap. They’ve lost some time to a pit stop and driver change, and they’ve reduced speed a bit (to 42 mph, of course) to keep the batteries from overheating. Tonight they’ll add some more ventilation holes to help get them through two more days of scorched-asphalt driving.

Tonight is also set aside to host Texas-based Miner alumni and their families. They’re joining us for fajitas and stories about the good old days. DSC_5520
Just like the guys in these chairs…..

The Evening Before the Race

Today was pretty laid back. Some students double- and triple-checked systems, a few napped on the garage floor, still others drooled over Nissan’s super car that did two-minute laps on COTA’s nearly four-mile long asphalt.

Preparation is the key to on-track success. Something seemingly mundane as putting anti-seize compound on your car’s rims, so that on-track tire replacement doesn’t require repeated applications of a large hammer.
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In the meantime, the Miners’ efforts to figure out the downturn in the array’s power paid off. For days it was assumed that a few delicate cell-to-cell connections had broken, but they didn’t want to rule out anything. Ultimately they discovered variations in the maximum power point trackers (MMPTs), a theory confirmed with discussions with other solar power experts on site. Replacements brought the power output to a respectable level. Respectable for an array that for three years has been manhandled, moved, flexed, touched, twisted, poked and prodded, all the things things that aren’t supposed to happen to solar cells.

On to Austin!

The Missouri S&T Solar car is about 40 hours away from heading to Austin, Texas and the Circuit of the Americas, the site of the 2015 Formula Sun Grand Prix.
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Thanks to the good folks at the Rolla National Airport the Miners did some last-minute skid-pad and slalom testing this morning, and everything worked just fine. This is the last year they’ll race Solar Miner VIII, which as solar cars go is getting long in the tooth at just three years old. SMVIII sports a much more powerful and stable battery pack, which will come in handy because the solar panels ain’t what they used to be.
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Donovan Gibson, Conner Kostelac and Austin Holmsley each put SMVIII through some pre-scrutineering dynamic trials so they are confident the car will sail through the parking-lot portion of next week’s race.

DSC_4163Donovan, a former high school track and field athlete, even tried to out run the car. He didn’t.

Solar Miner VIII Rallies, Takes 7th

The American Solar Challenge, the biennial road/highway endurance test for cars and teams alike, wrapped up today at the University of Minnesota campus.

Solar car racing events, whether the annual track race or the biennial road journey, are like big family reunions. The place to renew friendships with competitors, manufacturers and officials alike, and learn from all of them. Competitors share their design ideas and excitement, manufacturers attend to see how their solar arrays are doing and lend moral support, and officials, many of whom are solar car veterans, watch for all the tricks that students try, because their teams did the same thing back “in the day.”

But the fun and camaraderie masks the hard work needed to field a solar car, or manage any other complex project.
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Missouri S&T’s Solar Car Team has been in a long rebuilding period. They hadn’t qualified for the track since 2011 so their focus was on reorganizing the team and cobbling together systems that weren’t necessarily designed to integrate well. In short, the checkbook was closed and they had to make do with what they had, and it became a great motivational learning tool because they did remarkably well at Formula Sun Grand Prix in Austin, Texas just two weeks ago.
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Out of twenty international teams, the Miners took 7th place despite driving just two of the available three track days. On the last day they climbed as high as 3rd for the day but the loss of a track day left them in a still-admirable position when the track finally closed. They wanted to make sure the car was finally “right,” and it was. Drivers Austin Holmsley and Devin Valmores guided Solar Miner VIII through 88 penalty- and trouble-free laps, right at 300 miles, in two mostly cloudy days. That performance more than qualified Missouri S&T for the Austin-to-Minneapolis road race but weeks earlier the team decided to return home.

We support the team’s choice. Finances and a lack of road experience played a part in the decision, but the students recognized the real goal was to qualify with a good car and a good team, which they did.

These are young students, and they learned the value of team operations and successful communications. They came back fired up and are already planning the car that will run in summer 2016. In fact, they are considering renaming the team “reCHARGE” in recognition of what they hope is Missouri S&T’s return to top-tier, cross-country performance.

Oh, yeah, Michigan won the road race.