Team Ursa needs your help to carry student research into space

The part-time rocketeers at Team Ursa are adopting a Silicon Valley approach to make suborbital research easy and affordable for middle school students. But they need your help crowdfunding the construction of their first prototype. In an email exchange Team Lead Luke Saindon and Team PR Consultant Brian Day shared Team Ursa's vision and goals with me. 

These aren't Nasa engineers who live and breath rocket science every day. Team Ursa's founding members met while studying engineering at the University of Maine. It's grown since then to include amateur rocketeers across the US. Yet most of the members have day jobs completely unrelated to space exploration and devote their free time to designing rockets. As Saindon and Day put it:

Team Ursa is a group of young professionals who are developing key reference designs and technologies that will give students and researchers easier access to suborbital space. It is our intention that making space a more accessible laboratory for students will foster their interest in STEM fields.

Our team has a multidisciplinary skill set consisting of mechanical, electrical, chemical and computer engineers, as well as individuals who specialize in drafting, computer programming, and social work. Often the willingness to put in some long hours easily outweighs a graduate degree. We all volunteer our time and receive no financial compensation.

Suborbital Research Takes a Quick Flight Into Space

Undergraduate students look on as Nasa launches their experiments into space on the space agency's suborbital sounding rocket. Source: Nasa

Undergraduate students look on as Nasa launches their experiments into space on the space agency's suborbital sounding rocket. Source: Nasa

The chance to inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers provides an extra drive to their part-time rocket science. Professional suborbital rockets climb straight up hundreds of kilometers into space before gravity pulls them back to Earth. For several minutes the rocket’s science payload experiences the full space environment including microgravity, radiation, and extreme temperatures. Nasa’s suborbital rocket program conducts about 20 launches every year - more than its orbital launch program. Space agencies also use suborbital rockets to develop the skills of young engineers and scientists. Nasa’s RockOn and RockSat programs and Esa’s Rexus program let undergraduates design suborbital research experiments. 

But suborbital research has been too difficult and expensive for primary and secondary schools to take part. Only a few programs support pre-college suborbital education. In Sonoma State University’s Small Satellites for Secondary Schools (S4) and Nasa’s Wallops Rocket Academy for Teachers and Students (Wrats) programs, teachers learn how to design small, circuit board experiments. These programs, however, don’t come close to outer space - Wrats uses model rockets that climb about 100 meters while S4 uses small high-performance rockets that only reach about 1,000 meters. As Saindon and Day explained:

If any teacher wanted to launch something into suborbital space the class would have to develop a design for both the vehicle and payload packaging from the ground up, this is absolutely out of the technical expertise of most schools out there. To develop and prototype these vehicles is not cheap. Having designs that are already proven makes launching an experiment more of a reality.

The folks at Team Ursa are using Silicon Valley principles of standards-based design, modularity, and open source to bring their vision to life. They based the design of their Ursa launch system on CubeSats, the small satellite standard that’s dramatically lowered the cost of space projects.

Check out some of my other articles about CubeSats and education:

 Using CubeSats lets student projects tap into the growing market of flight-tested hardware. Affordable consumer-level technologies like digital camera sensors, the Raspberry Pi micro-controller, and even smartphones will survive the extreme conditions of a rocket launch. As Saindon and Day pointed out:

There are a lot of possible experiments you can do with just sensors on a smartphone. Bio-sampling at high altitude is another really popular topic at the moment. Exposing samples to space radiation is another possibility.
Team Ursa's modular Payload Packaging Unit holds the CubeSat-based student experiments. The modular approach means schools don't have to develop their own rocket just to send research into space. Source: Team Ursa

Team Ursa's modular Payload Packaging Unit holds the CubeSat-based student experiments. The modular approach means schools don't have to develop their own rocket just to send research into space. Source: Team Ursa

Standardizing on the CubeSat lets Team Ursa take a modular approach to their rocket designs. The school’s experiment goes into a CubeSat-based Payload Management Unit (PMU). That in turn goes into a Payload Packaging Unit (PPU) - essentially a section of the rocket’s body. Team Ursa stacks several PPUs on top of the rocket’s motor section and caps the whole stack with the rocket’s nose cone. Integrating the school’s payload - typically a complicated, time-consuming effort - becomes a much simpler plug-and-play process. Or maybe that should be plug-and-launch.

The Ursa 2.1 launch vehicle stacks modular Payload Processing Units between the rocket motor and the nosecone. The experiments housed in each PPU parachute separately to Earth while exposed to the space environment. Source: Team Ursa

The Ursa 2.1 launch vehicle stacks modular Payload Processing Units between the rocket motor and the nosecone. The experiments housed in each PPU parachute separately to Earth while exposed to the space environment. Source: Team Ursa

The third aspect of Team Ursa’s approach - open source - promises to make their technology widely available to schools and amateur high-performance rocketeers. They will file their designs with Rocketpedia, a portal for space exploration education. Schools can download the Ursa designs and make their own PPUs and PMUs to package their experiments. Any high-performance rocketeers who use Team Ursa's design to build their rockets will be able to launch the students' research. In the spirit of open source, the amateur community can tweak and modify the designs and post those changes to Rocketpedia.

Here’s How You Can Help

Luke Saindon introduces Team Ursa and explains why your help will bring space research to American classrooms. Source: Team Ursa Crowdfunding Campaign

The team has already tested the 1.0 version of their Ursa launch vehicle. The Team Ursa crowdfunding campaign hopes to raise $5,000 to cover the cost of the first PPUs for their second-generation Ursa 2.1 prototype. In addition to the usual assortment of awards, backers will receive a raffle entry for every dollar they donate. The raffle winner will be able to send their own payload in one of the PPUs Team Ursa launches.

Launch of the Ursa 1.0 in the Black Rock desert. Source: Team Ursa

Can they do it? The founding members already have experience launching high performance rockets while students at the University of Maine. A Nasa research grant awarded by the Maine Space Grant Consortium let them build Ursa 1.0 for their senior design project. Their advisor on the project, Tom Atchison, runs the Mavericks Civilian Space Program - a non-profit that enhances middle and high school science education through high-performance rocket design projects. Mavericks hosts the crowdfunding service Team Ursa is using as well as the Rocketpedia open source space technology portal. According to Saindon and Day, that relationship will continue beyond the crowdfunding campaign:

[Mavericks] have impressive space based educational programs all over the country, and already have a lot of infrastructure to bring these sort of designs into the classroom. We’re a small team, so we need Mavericks to be our “distributor”. Team Ursa is most interested in getting the reference designs proven, and then working with the schools and students if they need assistance to build our design while the schools participate in a Mavericks program.

But first they need your help. If you'd like a chance to send your own experiment rocketing towards space and open suborbital research to kids around the world, then go make a donation to the Team Ursa campaign.