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Engineering Teams Bring Home CanSat Titles

Monday, October 9, 2006
[KU CanSat team prepares for launch]

Some engineering students may never look at an aluminum can in the same way again.

After a semester of design, construction and evaluation two teams of primarily electrical engineering and aerospace engineering students at the University of Kansas transformed a once pop-filled container into a miniature satellite for the annual CanSat Competition in Manassa, Va., and finished first and third in the nation.

The official competition began with a pre-flight conference on June 1, 2006. The following day, teams launched their can-sized satellites - or CanSats - retrieved data and then collected the mini satellites in order to analyze the results. The competition concluded with a post-flight presentation where the teams evaluated their design before a panel of judges and presented data gathered from the previous day, which was represented through charts, graphs and photographs. The CanSat itself also was presented if it was successfully retrieved.

In addition to being the size of a pop can, the satellite, must weigh no more than 350 grams, cost under $500, and descend in three to five minutes. While the structural elements were the same for both the advanced team and the basic team, the satellites each team produced had to complete different objectives.

The seven-member basic team consisted of four electrical engineering seniors, who participated as part of their senior design project, and three aerospace engineering or mechanical engineering underclassmen who volunteered.

The team "had a GPS on board and had to have a temperature sensor for an ascent profile," said Michael Altenhofen, leader of the basic team and now a junior aerospace engineering.

The team's 200 to 300 hours of work earned a third place finish in the national competition and a monetary prize of $1,000.

Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering Trevor Sorenson, the KU faculty adviser for the CanSat competition, said he was "thrilled, especially for the basic team because there was more competition and some excellent entries." Unable to retrieve their CanSat after the launch portion of the competition, the basic team could not complete some of the objectives.

The eight-member advanced team, consisting of both seniors and volunteers, had to incorporate a digital camera into the design that could take photographs and send the newly acquired information and images to a land-based computer during the flight. The team still had to contend with the same cost, size and weight restrictions.

"The most challenging aspect by far was trying to find a good place to put all the electronics on the internal structure," said Stephen Mance, advanced team structural leader who is now a junior in aerospace engineering. "There were probably about seven different components that needed to be attached to a structure which we made from scratch that would fit into a tube the size of a soda can. When all was said and done, there wasn't much of the structure that wasn't covered up by our electronics," he said. The advanced team was the sole team in its category that was able to complete the competition in its entirety, gaining the team a first-place finish and $2,500.

As truly the only competition of its kind, the CanSat Web site notes "although similar competitions exist for other fields of engineering (robots, radio-control airplanes, racing cars, etc.), most space-related competitions today are paper design competitions. While these are worthwhile, they do not give students the satisfaction of being involved with the end-to-end lifecycle of a complex engineering project, from conceptual design, through integration and test, actual operation of the system and concluding with a post-mission summary and debrief."

The learning extended beyond the classroom with real-world applications, the students said.

"This was my first hands-on student project to be able to use the math and physics that we studied" Altenhofen said. "From this project, I learned much about engineering management, how to deal with people and problems that arise in the real world."

Mance agreed.

"The most important lesson I learned out of this is how much each division has to work together to form a good result. If there wasn't adequate communication between our teams, I doubt we would have gotten finished and had a working system when we did."

Basic Team Members:

Michael Altenhofen, aerospace engineering junior and team leader

Mike Hochman, mechanical engineering senior

Brianna Swigart, aerospace engineering junior

Carolyn Medved, aerospace engineering junior

Guillermo Goicochea, electrical engineering senior

Carla Castillo, electrical engineering '06 graduate

Maria Laura, electrical engineering senior

Advanced Team:

Nigel Dunham, electrical engineering senior and team leader

Stephen Mance, aerospace engineering junior and structural team leader

Ryan Shaffer, aerospace engineering junior

Jess Snyder, engineering physics senior

Laura Stiles, engineering physics senior

Yi Yang, electrical engineering '06 graduate

Anthony Olson, electrical engineering '06 graduate

Mishari Alnahedh, electrical engineering senior

CanSat competition Web site

Story by Anna Tabakh, public information assistant.



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