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Take off: ISU rocket team lands a win

 ISU Rocket and team leader Daniel Freburg
Charlie Schlenker
Illinois State University Rocket Team leader and graduate student Daniel Freburg shows one of the vehicles students landed to win a Defense Department-sponsored contest.

Illinois State University has won a Department of Defense-sponsored rocket competition for the second straight time.

Last month, ISU students topped the University of Illinois and Purdue University in the Vertical Landing Rocket Competition by landing closest to the target and surviving the landing. The U of I Laboratory for Advanced Space Systems hosted the competition in Rantoul. Vertical rocket landings with recoverable vehicles are the direction the space industry is moving, rather than water landings.

The rockets are dropped from a drone 20 meters above the ground. The drop time is between two and three seconds.

Last year when ISU won the contest, the weather was cold. This year it was nicer, and it made a big difference because cold temperature can delay the time the rocket fires by a couple tenths of a second, said graduate student Daniel Freburg, who led the team and heads the student organization Redbirds in Space.

"9.3 meters per second is the average rate of gravity. So, two-tenths of a second is almost two meters. That affects whether it lands nicely or not. Two meters really is a big difference," said Freburg.

There also is a general variation of between .3 and .7 seconds in the delay between the time the signal is given and the time the rocket ignites, a further complication. The rocket engine burns for about .8 seconds.

They run simulation software ahead of the drop.

ISU Rocket Team members spring 2023.
ISU Rocket Team
The ISU Rocket Team members for spring 2023.

“It helps us try to land vertically. We’ll do some simulations, and the rocket will land at a 30-degree angle,” said Freburg. “We run simulations on when we want to ignite and when we want to gimble the engine from north to south or east to west. There is a lot involved in it.”

Another variable is wind speed.

“The drone operators are trying to keep it steady and if it is swinging, they will try to release it in the middle of the swing to keep it straight,” said Freburg.

It takes a lot of people to land a rocket. And the science is complex with aerospace engineering and computer science.

"A lot of people think of rocket science as aerospace engineering. And then we have an avionics bay inside of that rocket which has a Wi-Fi connection and an accelerometer. It has four electronical boards just inside a small model rocket," said Freburg. “

Freburg said even the small models they use in the vertically landed team challenge are very complex.

ISU had two entries in the Vertical Landing Rocket Team competition. Team Red included Freburg, Suhail Tailor, Shane Burke, and Ben Gensler. Team Black won the Closest to Target award. That team consisted of Lo Norsworthy, Sabbir Ahmad, Mathew Weisbaum, Mason Myre, and Jabari Washington. Faculty sponsors were professors Will Lewis and Shukri Abotteen.

The Department of Defense sponsored the competition to create interest in rocket science. At root, landing a rocket is the same technical challenge faced by the Space X Falcon 9 two stage commercial rocket.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.