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:
Suborbital Research Takes a Quick Flight Into Space
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:
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:
- TJ3Sat, the first high school satellite in space
- StangSat high school satellite
- Mission Possible grade school satellite
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:
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 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
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.
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:
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.