Spaceport America Cup

A picture of Spaceport America, located in New Mexico.

A picture of Spaceport America, located in New Mexico.
Photo credit: Miami2you / Shutterstock

The 2017 Spaceport America Cup is the first of its name, picking up the grail after the end of ESRA’s International Rocket Engineering Competition. But its sponsor and namesake, the New Mexico launch site for private space companies, hope to see it grow a reputation of its own for nurturing a new generation of aeronautical innovators.

The competitors in this competition are all students from colleges across the country, 110 teams in all. The winners overall were a team from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Their rocket, which used a liquid rocket propulsion system, traveled over 9km above the Earth’s surface.

Another rocket, built by a team of student interns at United Launch Alliance, fired off the largest sport rocket on record, 16m tall and over 1,000 pounds. This one served another purpose: carrying 16 packets of mementos and cards from students K-12, it was meant to inspire those students into STEM paths of their own.

The turnout this year was a massive increase over the attendance at the last ESRA event, which garnered 40 teams in 2016, and had outgrown its venue. The much larger facilities of Spaceport America will allow the new competition to continue growing, giving more and more engineering students the impetus to look to the stars.

Participants in the ESRA competition have gone on to employment in Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX, ULA, and NASA, proving that the competition moves lives forward. It’s certain that technology made by some of these past students is in space today, either on the ISS or in orbit in some other way.

21 different awards went out for various achievements in all kinds of flight and design, backed by many of those same companies and also Virgin Galactic, which owns a controlling interest in Spaceport America. It was held over the weekend of June 24th, 2017.

Robot Can Shoot Rocks with Lasers…On its Own

An image of Mars from the rover.

Image: Shutterstock

There’s a robot on Mars with lasers… and it gets to choose its own victims. This isn’t a science fiction story, and don’t worry, that robot doesn’t want to kill humans. The robot in question is the Curiosity Mars rover, which has been cruising around Mars and taking all kinds of samples for several years now. One of it’s many tools is called ChemCam, which is a laser system mounted on the top of its mast. ChemCam can zap rocks to find out their chemical composition.

This is an incredibly useful tool because it allows us to learn a lot more about those rocks than photos would ever tell us. For the most part, the rocks Curiosity shoots are chosen by scientists back here on Earth, based on what looks interesting from here. But they’ve recently uploaded some new software, called AEGIS, which lets Curiosity identify and target some rocks on its own. There are quite a few benefits of this.

For one, there isn’t always somebody on staff to keep an eye on Curiosity in case it stops by some compelling rocks. As such, there are certainly times when the rover wouldn’t be taking those kinds of samples, and that’s inefficient. No scientist wants to have too little data when they can possibly have too much, least of all NASA.

Another benefit is accuracy and time management. When scientists picked rocks in the past, they’d have to take several shots at them to make sure they hit them with the ChemCam laser. But the AEGIS system vastly improves Curiosity’s aim. That’s useful when it’s choosing its own targets, but it also helps when we’re picking those targets. With the AEGIS system, once a rock is chosen as a target (regardless of who is choosing it) the laser can hit it right on target the first time, and then move onto other samples more quickly.