Boring = Good. Exciting = Bad.

…and this afternoon was pretty exciting for the Solar Miners.

We’ve already reported that the S&T Solar Car fought its way to the lead and held it for several hours, and that it took a driver change and tire swap to temporarily push them out of first. No worries there, because Solar Miner VIII was firing on all cells and batteries, and the team still had over two days of racing to go.

On top of that, Austin Holmsley scorched that track with a 4:49 over the 3.418-mile course, the best lap of the day. But maybe “scorched” was a bit prophetic…

Daytime temperatures “only” hit 97 today, but with barely a cloud in the sky that asphalt was burning hot. Current race leader Iowa State reported going through three complete sets of tires, and they believe it was due to overheated rubber compounds.

Shortly before 4:00 this afternoon Donovan Gibson took SMVIII out to finish the last two hours of the day. About 20 miles into his stint behind the wheel, things suddenly got exciting. Very exciting.

Donovan radioed to report a flat tire, but before race central could even ask “which tire?” he let out a fairly strong expletive and then went quiet. Oh, ****!!! was the reaction in the pits. Donovan then called in to say he’d spun out and was trying to assess any damage, while a flustered support crew grabbed tires, wheels, tools and whatever else they could think of and raced from the garage.
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They lost another six or seven laps before they could replace the tire and limp the car back to the garage. Which, by the way, was full of Texas-based MSM/UMR/S&T alums who had gathered to cheer the team on.
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Instant automotive triage, as over a dozen S&T engineers swarmed the car as ants to honey. Each subgroup sprung into action checking electrical, body, suspension and array damage as if they’d rehearsed the scenario dozens of times. No panic, no yelling, just measured determination and teamwork. While the EEs checked battery temps, MEs found that lateral forces warped all three wheels beyond repair and the brake rotors were badly bent. It took about DSC_5652 (1)30 minutes of well-managed mayhem, with 20-some engineering alums looking over their shoulders, to get the car back on the track for the last hour of the day.

Best assessment of the incident? Scorched tires.

Again, boring = good, excitement = bad.

Way too much excitement for one day.

And the alumni guests couldn’t be more proud!

#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.

So, Why the Orange T-Shirts?

There’s no mistaking the S&T Miners at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA). They’ve chosen function over form, safety over civility, practicality over protocol by donning neon orange t-shirts instead of the now-classic S&T green garments.

Safety is a key consideration at all student design events, and solar car racers must be ready at a moment’s notice to attend to their stalled car. The rapid-reaction crew must wear orange safety vests anytime they venture on the track to fix flat tires, reset electrical circuits, or simply push their car up COTA’s massive hill going into turn #1.
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No question that visibility on a crowded track is important, but with temperatures nipping at the century mark, heat injury is an even bigger concern; adding a nylon vest to your team uniform/t-shirt is simply asking for heat stress. It’s last year’s experience that taught the team to be smarter/safer, so they chose an, uh, eye-catching hue that has three advantages. First is visibility, as mandated by event rules. Second, cutting down on heat-trapping layers of clothing. Third? If there is an emergency you always know where your safety vest is.

Solar Miners Nab 5th place in Start Line.

Three days in Texas are set aside for “scrutineering:” three days to pass seven critical tests or go home empty-handed. Electrical, mechanical, array, battery protection systems, driver, vehicle body/sizing/egress, and dynamics.

Day one was reserved for five teams, so that event organizers could get things moving in an orderly manner. Day #2 was a free-for-all; first-come, first-served. The Miners made the most of it, clearing every station but braking, and they got through that early the next morning. Scrutineering ends in just a few hours but so far only six of the fifteen teams are in the race.
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S&T is spending the afternoon working on the array. This batch of solar cells has some years on it and it’s not working 100% but the students are challenging each diagnosis. Might be a bad solder joint, or a balky power tracker but separate groups are experimenting with every possible solution.

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.

Mining for Rockets. Or, 400mph Lawn Darts.

We’ve posted about the desert search for errant rockets, and finally we have closure.

The Miners, along with Harry Steel and Michel Fathallah from the University of Sydney, covered well over a square mile of scorching desert floor and ravines in search for rocket 28A. Two days of systematically covering the San Rafael desert, sometimes as late as dusk, did turn up five competitors’ rockets, but just a few paint scraps of S&T’s Hyperion. It was as if the missile had left earth for good.
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Facing a 1,300-mile trip back to Rolla, it was time to give up and head home. Harry and Michel only had to drive back to Las Vegas so Harry, a cross between Lawrence of Arabia and a gazelle, gave it one more try. Just “going for a walk,” as he put it.

The Miners’ caravan was nearly three hours east when they got the text; Harry thought he’d found Hyperion! No question in the group’s mind but they had to see for real, so it was an immediate U-turn back to Green River. A quick lunch/planning session and another 20 miles out into the scrub, far past the launch base camp and well into 4WD terrain.

They left the truck on a ridge and hiked another 600 yards south, through two dry creek beds to the GPS coordinates. Just yards from where they found paint-chip remnants was a little piece of aluminum tape sticking out of the sand, still attached to the base of the rocket.
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The nine-foot-tall rocket sustainer burrowed into the sand like a 400 mph acupuncture needle; didn’t even disturb the surface, and it looked like it’d take an archeology major to recover it. Or a pair of shovels, which Jill Davis and Kyle Bruer had the foresight to borrow back in town.

The four engineers-to-be dug a trench sideways into the hillside, then turned to scooping out sand by hand to make sure they didn’t discard any critical payload or data components.
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It didn’t take long to realize the nose cone stopped about 5 feet down, while the payload components were still moving very fast. The rocket motors, vacuum chamber, main parachute and assorted hardware were crushed into a mangled mess of steel, wire, circuits, batteries and plywood. The Aussie’s satellite? Fuggedaboutit. Nose cone? Shattered. Metal rocket tube? Mushroomed like a bullet hitting concrete. Composite tube? Telescoped into itself, then disintegrated.
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They foursome sifted through everything, looking for critical data cards which could help the autopsy. Miraculously they found a nearly-intact video camera and recovered the SD card, and they hope someone on campus can recover the flight images.

Some three hours into the “mining” they hit bedrock and, not finding any more rocket shreds, called it a day. They cleaned up the site and buried the debris in the hole from whence it came. And then drove home to Rolla.

In a few weeks they’ll carefully to peel apart the mess to see why the second stage didn’t light.

Or, as everyone said at Saturday’s all-team picnic, “NEXT year!”

Launch the Rocket. Look for the Rocket.

Becomes kind of a monotonous cycle.
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Each launching salvo consists of two to five rockets lined up on the pad. There’s roughly a 10-minute gap between each vehicle blasting off and the next, an interval that assures everything has returned to ground and that spectators aren’t trying to follow two rockets at one time.

It also gives ground trackers the chance to triangulate the likely “landing” spot to make recovery operations easier.

“Easier” is a relative term. One launch vehicle drifted back under parachute to within 150 feet of the launch rail. Others were more than a mile away in this featureless terrain.

Should parachutes fail (and they do) at 10,000 feet or more, the rocket becomes “ballistic.” That means you hope to see it in time to step out of the way…

Who Knew a Rocket Launch Could Be Such a Hassle?

MinerlaunchSUN_8429It’s been 18 hours since Hyperion lifted off from the dusty surface of the San Rafael Desert, and there’s still no sign of the upper stage and its payload experiments.

Chief engineer Kyle Bruer has been leading a search party since late this morning. We have heard that they are coming in from the field and haven’t succumbed to the heat, dust, gnats, scorpions, cow patties or rock ledges that make this place such a memorable place* to visit.

No telling if they’ve found other long-lost launch vehicles, or if the Miners’ rocket is coming back in a bag, in large chunks, or not at all.

*It IS amazingly beautiful out here. It’s just much more hospitable in the Spring and Fall…
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UPDATE! The recovery party abandoned the search about 5:00 this afternoon, but they did find the remains of at least one other team’s rocket. Protocol requires that you don’t touch another missile since you don’t know what powder charges or motors might remain on board, simply record the GPS coordinates for later recovery. At tonight’s banquet/picnic they made another team extremely happy to know their project was found. Who knows? Maybe they’ll find ours when they get back out there.

Lastly, the motto of the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association is “Knowledge by Experimentation.” Quite fitting.

In Rocket Parlance, it’s Called an “Event.”

Rocket science has its own language. For those raised in the decades of the space race, we had one-, two-, or three-stage rockets. A booster is still a booster, but the second stage is now called a “sustainer.” Whatever.
BoosterfallSUN_8454A rocket flight “event” simply means that the status quo has changed. It’s a way for the P.A. announcer to draw the crowd’s attention to what’s going on in the sky; what to look for.

When the rocket streaks skyward and the booster falls away, that’s an event. Same when a drogue parachute appears. Usually an “event” is a scheduled part of a flight, but sometimes the event, while amazing to watch, is an unhappy situation for the builders.

The Miners’ flight yesterday came off the rail at a different angle than expected. We are not sure if that was an “event” but it was noticed by the HPER team. Hyperion’s next action was to separate the booster and release the sustainer to climb to the missile’s 23,000+ feet apogee.

That event didn’t go quite as planned. The booster separated but its parachute tore loose, drifting on the breeze while the booster tube tumbled straight down. Worse, the sustainer didn’t ignite and it continued just on momentum. Without another event to indicate that the sustainer ‘chute deployed there was no way to see which direction it went. Or where it eventually augured into the ground.

Last night’s search party did find some clues in the form of a few shreds of blue fiberglass, nearly a mile from where the booster, uh, landed. Now that flight operations are over they’re rehydrated and back out wandering the desert for the remainder of Hyperion’s payload. While it’s an unhappy ending there’s still much to be learned. If they can recover the University of Sydney’s on-board “satellite” they’ll be able to retrieve some data about the flight and the G-forces that payloads need to withstand. They also think their vacuum chamber is strong enough to withstand impact and be usable for next year’s flights.

Keep in mind that just as in NASA’s early years, these are experiments and failure is common. Some rockets misfired. More that one came in as ballistic; very fast and very dangerous to those not paying attention. Our friends at Mizzou, we are told, lost a fin on a Mach 2 launch attempt. Their rocket tumbled out of control and tore itself to pieces.

The worst luck struck one team right on the launch rail.Fire in the skySUN_8359 Seems all their rocket motors fired at once, spewing flaming motors and payload components all around the launch towers, setting the weeds on fire. Clean-up operations further delayed the remaining launches, but aside from wounded pride, there were no injuries or other damage.