|The USST climber in action.|
|Photo courtesy USST|
The team of 30 students, mostly Engineering undergrads, recently finished first for the second straight year at Elevator: 2010, a competition designed to boost innovation in the design of a space elevator. They missed the $150,000 prize by mere seconds.
“The chips just fell into place so nicely in the last two years. It’s kind of mind-blowing, actually,” said Clayton Ruszkowski, the president of the USST and a fourth-year Mechanical Engineering student.
The space elevator concept sounds futuristic, but The Spaceward Foundation, which is behind Elevator: 2010, says fullscale work will begin in 2010 and the elevator could carry its first payload by 2020. The elevator would consist of a thin ribbon or tether anchored to a base on Earth and to a counterweight in space.
Vehicles called “climbers” – the type of device the USST has designed and built – would travel up and down the tether, carrying cargo or personnel into space. Ruszkowski says the elevator is the likely replacement for rockets and the space shuttle, potentially reducing the cost of transporting cargo into space 100-fold. “It’s at the leading edge,” he said.
Elevator: 2010 is among NASA’s Centennial Challenges initiatives, an effort to stimulate innovation in areas in which the space agency has struggled. Rather than awarding grants for future work, NASA offers prize money for organizations to build technology that can fulfill certain requirements.
Twelve teams took part in the climber competition in October, including universities, private companies, and hobbyists from Canada, the U.S., and Europe. To win the 2006 prize money, a climber had to travel at an average speed of 1 metre per second. The USST’s climber managed 0.96 m/sec, just 0.05 m/sec short of the prize money.
For the 2007 competition, NASA has boosted the technical requirements. The robot will have to climb 400 feet instead of 200 feet at an average speed of 2 metres per second. The prize is bigger, too – a team that meets the requirements in 2007 will Competition heats up in ‘O7 win $500,000.
The USST’s robot climber must go faster and higher in 2007, but the team also needs to find more money to finance the project.
Team members already spend much of their time canvassing for funds. They have also had to learn marketing and accounting as well as media relations. They have received coverage on CNN, ABC, BBC, the Discovery Channel, and have had a call from The New York Times. “It doesn’t leave us enough time to do the engineering we need to do,” said the team’s vice-president Remko van den Hurk, a 5th-year Engineering Physics student.
The space team’s budget for the 2006 event was about $35,000, and the team members had to pay their own travel costs to the Las Cruces, N.M. competition. Van den Hurk says the group may need as much as $100,000 to revamp the robot for next year. “It’s such an important competition and gets more expensive every year, because as they increase the requirements, then we also need to increase the quality of our robot. We need to get a better power source and we need to get better solar cells, and so forth.”
The team is looking for volunteer students and faculty across disciplines who are willing to help out with fundraising and public relations, among other tasks.
“Right now, the more the better … There’s so much to do, so much potential for our team and the University to excel in this competition,” said Ruszkowski.
At the 2006 event, the USST used a spotlight to power the solar cells on the climber. For next year, the team plans to use a high-powered laser as a more consistent power source.
Ruszkowski and van den Hurk compare the work of the USST on the space elevator to early amateur rocket scientists who built rockets in their backyards. “And as they went on, they became involved in things like the space program, and actually built real rockets that actually launched people into space,” said van den Hurk. “Kind of like training for the big show,” added Ruszkowski. Both hope to eventually have careers in the aerospace industry.
Allan Dolovich, a faculty advisor to the USST and associate professor in Mechanical Engineering, said the success of the space team could be attributed to the expertise available in the college and also to the rural or farm backgrounds of many of the students. “The environment is a combination of not only technical know-how, but also making it practical, making it work,” he said. “We really do have a worldclass Engineering college.”
After long hours of designing and building the device, the USST’s robot has already outperformed climbers from many other, bigger universities.
“When you really look at the people involved in our project, and the actual education we are getting at the U of S, it’s a world-class education that we’re receiving here. And even though we may not have the budget of other schools, it’s not all about money, either,” Ruszkowski said. “… It just makes you think about what we could do if we had a lot more funding.”
The USST got its start in January of 2005 on the initiative of student James Pendrigh. Ruszkowski says any prize winnings would go to Engineering student projects or scholarships.
More information on the USST is available at www.usst.ca.