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Meet Seattle Central Rocketry, SCC’s ambitious rocketry program

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Inspired by NASA and companies like SpaceX, BlueOrigin, and Virgin Galactic, Seattle Central College (SCC) students have their own hands-on opportunity to experience the exciting world of rocketry. 

Sometimes building from kits and other times from scratch using their own designs, members of the Seattle Central Rocketry program meet weekly to work on high-power rockets. After months of meticulous and careful work, they are launched at events attended by schools throughout Washington state. 

If you have ever wondered about the physics and engineering that go into developing a rocket that flies faster than sound, Seattle Central Rocketry has the answer.

Originally established in 2014, Seattle Central Rocketry advisor. Ricco Bonicalzi, Ph.D., a physics, astronomy, and mathematics professor at SCC, has been the mentor of the program for the past five years. The program provides students studying STEM the opportunity to put what they learn in the classroom into practice. 

The program’s mission is to provide a small group of students with the opportunity to build, design, and launch high-power rockets. “The hands-on experience and challenges make this an excellent activity for gaining confidence in one’s abilities as an aspiring engineer or scientist,” said Bonicalzi. 

Seattle Central Rocketry Pictured are members of the rocketry program with samples of rockets that they have built.

The program currently consists of seven active students. While each member of the group initially works on their own rocket to gain experience, the group also collaborates on more challenging designs. 

Currently, the team is building a two-stage rocket and a rocket that deploys two parachutes at different points in its flight, to decrease the distance the rocket could drift from the launch site. In both cases, electronics are involved, which provides another hands-on opportunity for learning.

A supersonic rocket, however, is the team’s most ambitious project. Supersonic rockets, as the name implies, are rockets that travel faster than the speed of sound — around 760 mph
The ratio of an object’s speed to the speed of sound, called the Mach Number, is commonly used to measure these speeds. The group’s fastest supersonic rocket is expected to reach Mach 1.5 (about 1150.9 mph).

Seattle Central Rocketry The construction of a couple of supersonic rockets with different diameters. The smaller rocket is about 4 feet long and has a target altitude of 2.5 km with a maximum speed of Mach 1.5.

Due to the extreme forces involved in approaching the sound barrier, supersonic rockets must be built from durable materials. Components such as fiberglass body tubes and carbon-fiber rocket fins are typical. Kevlar, a material found in bulletproof vests, is often used to reinforce the fins. 

Each rocket flight is simulated on a program called Open Rocket. The software lets users input their own rocket design and motor type along with providing detailed trajectories that incorporate advanced aerodynamics. The program predicts the maximum altitude and speed of the rocket and other such quantities. 

Most importantly, if the rocket design is poor — for example causing the rocket to become unstable and fly in an unintended direction — the simulation will clearly show that. The user can adjust parameters in the design and get important feedback from the simulation. 

For example, to influence the flight of a rocket, the length can be adjusted. “If it’s too short, the rocket can become unstable, and longer means more mass,” Bonicalzi said. “To improve performance, you can adjust the size of the rocket and such things like that.”

Seattle Central Rocketry A rocket’s flight is shown as a function of time in the upper left side of the OpenRocket simulator. The rocket’s altitude is shown in red. After 16 seconds, near the top of its trajectory, the rocket releases its parachute, then drifts slowly to the ground.

Seattle Central Rocketry receives funding from the NASA Washington Space Grant Consortium. NASA’s Space Grant involves a network of schools and organizations working to increase student understanding and participation in NASA’s aeronautics and space projects by supporting and enhancing science and engineering education, research, and public outreach. The program is also supported through SCC’s Ready! Set! and Transfer! program funded by the National Science Foundation.  

Each year the group attends a few launches, usually held in Washington state. In 2016, Seattle Central Rocketry traveled to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada along with other Washington schools. 

Seattle Central Rocketry is currently preparing for an ambitious rocket launch on March 26. The upcoming launch will take place near White Swan, Washington on Yakama Nation Tribal land, and will be hosted by the Mount Adams Rocket Science club, a student organization from White Swan High School. 

Chin-Erdene is an international student at Seattle Central College and a member of the Editorial Board of Seattle Collegian. He is currently pursuing a degree in computer science and linguistics and aspiring to become a linguistics engineer in the future. As he is from Mongolia, he only started to learn English in the latter part of his high school years, from which he developed a deep passion for linguistics and language structures. He wants to use the applications of computer science and mathematics to analyze written and spoken languages from computational perspectives. In his free time, he loves reading science fiction books, baking sourdough bread, and watching action/sci-fi movies. He is a big fan of Goerge R.R Martin and J.R.R Tolkein.

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