November 2, 2007
By Colleen MacPherson
USST President Clayton Ruszkowski.
Photo by Colleen MacPherson
One more hour.
That’s how much time the U of S Space Design Team (USST) would have needed to tweak their system enough to win the $500,000 prize in this year’s Elevator 2010 competition. But it was not to be.
“We just had a couple of little modifications to make, and we would have had it,” said Engineering student Clayton Ruszowski, president of the 50-member team of undergraduates and alumni.
In the end, the team had to settle for beating out all other competitors in the event, held Oct. 19-22 in Utah, setting three competition records, claiming one world record and attracting the interest of industry and media from around the world. What caught everyone’s attention was the team’s GPS-guided laser system used to power its climber, a prototype for an ‘elevator’ that one day may lift payloads along a tether between Earth and a counterweight in space.
The victory did not come easily for the team. Ruszkowski said their solar panels were shipped to Utah directly from the manufacturer but were found to be flawed. Team members built new solar panels on site but they were 20 pounds heavier than the original design. Then there were numerous weather delays. And the tether used in the competition broke twice, once with the USST climber 30 meters in the air.
When time was called, the USST climber had achieved a top speed of 1.8 meters per second, just shy of the 2 m/sec required to take top prize. They had more than enough power from their laser system, Ruszkowski said, which earned them the world record for greatest transfer of laser light to mechanical energy. They also proved it is possible to integrate numerous intricate subsystems.
But their biggest advantage may well have been their experience. Ruszkowski said two previous competitions taught the team the need for co-ordination. “One of the NASA officials said we operated with military or Nascar precision. Everybody knew their job and we got our set-up time down to 10 minutes.”
Now with their laser experience, “we’re in a really good position for next year” when the prize money jumps to $900,000.
Most satisfying of all, he said, was the fact people travelled from around the world to watch them compete. Representatives from aerospace companies were there, as was the head of the German company that manufactured their laser. Ruszkowski did many interviews, the team was featured on the CBC national network and they have an upcoming spot on Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet. They were even recognized on the street in a tiny southern Saskatchewan town on the trip home from Utah.
Ruszkowski is now off to Luxembourg as one of 12 invited speakers at a meeting of aerospace industry representatives interested in space elevator technology. What they want to know, he said, is how a handful of Engineering students at the U of S came to be world leaders in just three short years.
Then it will be time to concentrate on school, he said. Professors have been very accommodating but there are projects due and exams to write. About three-quarters of the team will be graduating this year but they are not giving up on their unique pursuit. In fact, Ruszkowski thinks the team should expand into the competition to design a carbon nanotube tether strong enough to link Earth and space.
“We’ve got the CLS right behind us,” he said, gesturing to the north end of campus. “It’s an incredible tool, and our team is capable of anything.”