On the weekend of Sept. 20 to 22, students from the USC Rocket Lab hope to launch a rocket into outer space at an amateur rocketry convention called BALLS in Black Rock, Nev.
The rocket, named “Traveler,” was designed and built by the USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory. The rocket lab is primarily student-run; students are in charge of designing and manufacturing all of the rocket components and make all final decisions.
“The lab infrastructure is kept up by undergraduates,” Propulsion and General Fabrication Lead Jacob Hunter said.
Traveler represents the culmination of a long-standing goal to reach space since the rocket lab’s formation in 2005. To do this, the rocket will have to reach the Kármán line, 100 km above Earth’s surface.
All of the rockets designed in the lab so far have been created to test certain aspects of the Traveler. In order to test Traveler’s motor, a device called Graveler, or “Ground-Traveler,” was used to perform a static fire of Traveler’s motor.
“[Rocket] SixyBack tested a new type of nose cone and new avionics and recovery system that we designed for Traveler,” Aerodynamics Lead Brandon Edelson said.
Traveler has been undergoing improvements for about two years, with the original avionics chip and nose cone being replaced by more advanced counterparts. Recent Viterbi graduate Aaron Mitchell began working on avionics in the rocket lab his sophomore year.
“Our first avionics success, Silver Spur 3, was implemented using a tiny little chip. All it knew was how to track acceleration until it reached the peak of the flight and deployed the parachute, so after that we wanted more complex avionics for Traveler,” Mitchell said.
Now the avionics system is about the size of a toaster and has GPS, as well as multiple transmitters that can transmit data during the flight. Dan Erwin, chairman of the Department of Astronautical Engineering, sees Traveler’s success as the first step to eventually being able to carry payloads into space.
“In learning about space, a lot of observations we want to make are carried by X-rays, but the atmosphere absorbs X-rays, so all those detections must be made in space,” Erwin said.
Not only has the rocket lab achieved a lot for the university, but many members of the rocket lab also find their lab experience highly valuable when applying for jobs after college. SpaceX is one such company where many former members of the USC RPL now hold positions. The rocket lab is also a selling point for many prospective students who want to pursue astronautical engineering.
“I heard about the rocket lab when I was looking at schools. I saw all these projects going on and I really wanted to be a part of that,” Monica Nguyen, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, said.
Though the rocket lab holds obvious appeal for engineering majors, anyone is welcome to join the lab, regardless of skill or major.
“Initially I was interested in projects like Traveler. They always needed hands. Now I’m helping write computer code to create operations systems,” said Spencer Brown, a junior majoring in economics. Brown is also minoring in computer science and is now able to use his minor to help the lab accomplish its goals as they become more complex.
“The code I’m helping write will start to centralize different procedures for building the rocket,” Brown said.
Senior rocket lab members teach newcomers everything they need to know and students contribute in various ways, from helping design the website to fundraising for the lab.