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JMU Rocketry Team works to solve a problem for NASA. Without GPS, they engineer a way to locate a rocket on Mars

JMU Rocketry Team
The JMU Rocketry Team poses with their rocket after assembling it at Tripoli Central Virginia Rocket Club.(Photos by: Paul T. Roberts)

The nine members of the  James Madison University NASA Student Launch Team swarm around the tailgate of a beefy red pickup truck in a farm field south of Culpeper, Virginia. They unpack parts of a 10-foot-tall rocket including tubes, nose cones, cord, parachutes and electronic payloads. Team members scramble to assemble the parts and ready the rocket for flight. They have three launch windows in less than a week to meet assigned tasks in order to compete in the final round of a NASA rocket competition. The goal: without using GPS, engineer a way to find a rocket after it lands on Mars.

Kelly Sadel, JMU Senior and Launch Team Manager explains, “[our] payload objective is to simulate landing on another planet. Typically, GPS works with satellites and triangulation, and you don't have [GPS] on Mars. So, we're using something very similar to a technique called “dead reckoning,” and it uses inertial measurement units, which are sensors, IMUs, to determine the acceleration of the rocket and its direction.”

It’s early Saturday morning, March 26. The JMU team, along with dozens of other rocket enthusiasts, is staged on the edge of a roughly 130-acre field: the BattlePark Launch Site of the  Tripoli Central Virginia Rocket Club. It’s rained in recent days. Rich red clay between tufts of newly planted grass is not quite mud, but it still clumps on the student’s shoes. It’s cold and very windy. The team members pull their hoodies over their heads and often put their backs to the wind for protection, but they forge on.

JMU’s rocketry team works in pairs, then in small groups, based on their specialty within the project. A couple of students fold and tightly roll a parachute before struggling to pack it into the rocket tube. Other students prepare the payload: the accelerometers and the electronic brains used to record telemetry like speed, descent rate, etc., to determine where the rocket lands. The rocket body slides together, then the nose cone, and finally a sleek metal engine is inserted into the base. The rocket, now ready to fly, is purple, with a gold nose cone and fins: JMU school colors.

“It’s definitely big,” says Gray Roisch, the Safety Officer for the team, “In [the] rocketry hobby world, it’s considered a very large rocket.” It’s a mix of commercially available and scratch-built parts. “We bought the fiberglass tubes … and the nose cone.” Gray continues, “there's a lot of [commercially available] fins, but we machined our own. A lot of the internal airframe stuff, bulkheads and hardware … [are] scratch-built.” Gray then points to the rocket motor, “you can mix components and make your own motor, but it's very risky. So, that's one part that we don't touch. Actually, as students, we're not allowed to handle the motors or handle part of our recovery system [that uses] black powder to separate the rockets. We strictly build the airframe and our payload. Then our [location] mentor, Chuck Neff of  Valley Aerospace Team handles all the other stuff."

The JMU team lifts their rocket from its assembly cradle, and they carry it uphill toward the launch control area where a man in a steampunk top-hat and spectacles announces and then counts down launches through a portable PA system. As they head to launch control, Chuck and some of the team look at their phones. They pause. Their faces reveal disappointment.

Modeling and Simulations Lead Cameron Funk clarifies, “We did a lot of simulations based on performance due to weather. The leading [factor] is, of course, wind drift. This thing is going 5,000-plus feet into the air, meaning that it's going to take a while to come back down, and at least when the main parachute [comes] out, if the wind catches it, it's going to drift a very long distance.”

Abby Maltese, the team’s STEM Engagement Lead, continues, “We can simulate how fast the rocket's going when it's landing, and how much it's going to weigh, to see the kinetic energy at landing, and make sure that it's not going to hurt anyone or hurt the rocket. [We can simulate] the wind drift, so that we'll be able to recover the rocket.”

Laws and regulations are also a determining factor, “The FAA has guidelines for what's safe and acceptable to launch high-powered rockets.” Team Manager, Brandon Carroll says, “You have to be able to see the rocket” for the entire flight. “There can't be low cloud cover in case you have a plane flying [in the area].” Plus there is a “20 mph wind limit.” Today, the winds at 5,000 feet are howling at 46 mph. The launch is scrubbed.

This is JMU’s first ever rocket team. It was created by these nine members. It’s a small team. Other schools have up to 50  members. Brandon Carroll explains, “I got together with Trace, Abby and Chris the spring of our sophomore year, and we knew that we wanted to do something [in] aerospace or rocketry. We found Dr. Holland, who has ties with NASA and has an aerospace degree.” Dr. Keith Holland is associate provost of research and scholarship, and a professor of engineering at JMU. “I’m so proud of this team. A group of four of them marched right in before the pandemic and said, ‘as sophomores we really want to do a capstone project that focuses in this area.’ When you see students approach you and say they are really passionate about this, it’s hard to say no to that. They are a motivated group that wants to get something done and really expand their educational experience.”

Avionics and Rocket Recovery Lead, Trace Scordo recalls, “We had gone to visit Chuck Neff at the Valley Aerospace launch, and we're like, oh, this is just some older nerdy guys in cargo shorts shooting rockets up. But then we see the first rocket launch and it was just a completely new experience.” Now, Trace admits, “I fully anticipate being one of those old nerdy guys in cargo shorts.”

“The NASA [competition] kind of caught our eye.” Brandon says, “And then, basically, we wanted to build a rocket and get experience designing it, and learning about all of the different aspects of it. The kind of bonus of doing the NASA competition was the technical writing and the documentation that we go through. That's definitely a highlight on the resume.”

The next day, early Sunday morning, the team converges again at the launch site and reassembles their rocket. The winds are forecast to be higher than the day before, but they haven’t whipped up yet. The team walks a couple of hundred yards across the field to a trailer where they slide the rocket onto a truss, and then Chuck raises it into a vertical position. They do final checks, insert fuse wires and return to the launch command area. The countdown begins: 5, 4, 3 …

To qualify for the NASA finals in Huntsville, Alabama, the team has to get their descent rate to under 90 seconds, reduce their kinetic energy rate (the speed at which the rocket touches down), and of course, receive enough accurate telemetry to determine where the rocket lands.

2, 1 … a burst of smoke puffs from the base of the rocket followed by a crimson flame. The JMU rocket shoots into the sky so fast, it’s hard to follow. Within seconds, it’s too small to spot. The team searches for their rocket and waits. A small detonation is heard, and then the team spots the drogue parachute. The rocket accelerates toward the ground and when the main chute fully deploys, the team cheers. The rocket eases downward and gently settles onto the ground unusually near to where it took off. The team hurries to retrieve it.

Back at the truck tailgate, team members remove the payload and connect it to a couple of laptops. Gray Roisch calls out the numbers, “4,724 feet is our maximum altitude. Our max velocity was 533 feet per second. 17 seconds to apogee. Last time, our descent rate was too high and this time we landed at 14 feet per second, which is about as good as it gets. We landed within 50 yards of the launch pad, so, we can calculate our trajectory accurately.” In other words, the team knows where on Mars their rocket landed. Gray announces to his teammates, “We met all of our requirements.”

The JMU NASA Student Launch Team competed in the finals in Huntsville on April 23, 2022. After a few issues with the ignition system, the team launched its rocket successfully and it landed safely. Although the competition results would be released at a later date, everyone on the team had a blast. Brandon Carroll explains “So as a first year team, our goal was to make [the rocket] and to compete.” Cameron Funk elaborates that the team intends to create a legacy, “We’re hoping that by [doing] the competition this year, we’ll get a lasting aerospace culture at JMU that’ll outlive our time here.”