Pasco hosts Student Rocketry Challenge National Competition

PASCO, Wash. — The National Association of Rocketry (NAR) hosts a Student Rocketry Challenge every year, but this year looked different due to COVID. Instead of hosting a large event near Washington, D.C., they hosted ten smaller regional events to skirt around potential travel restrictions and concerns. For the Pacific Northwest region, they chose Pasco.

The Tri-City Rocketeers were already planning on hosting a launch event this last weekend at the coordinates 46.404 Latitude, -119.013 Longitude, or left on a gravel road between Pfister Air and RC Car Raceway in north Pasco. NAR asked them to include a day for The American Rockery Challenge (TARC) students to launch their rockets as well.

Approximately ten teams from Washington and Oregon launched rockets on Sunday afternoon, mostly from the west of the Cascades.

On site Sunday, Jim Wilkerson, who is an Official NAR Observer and a Board Member for NAR, explained what the students were aiming to achieve.

“They’re given an altitude, or time aloft target, and they have to fly either one or more eggs, raw hens eggs. So they say take the rocket to this altitude, keep it up this amount of time, and the ones that get closest to those targets are eventually declared the winners. The egg has to be recovered in tact.”

Students were encouraged to use their creativity, and explore different types of rockets for the competition. Kara Gaiser and Zachary Weinstein from Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, Oregon built a rocket with their team that could do some pretty remarkable things: deploy air brakes at specified angles, and a motor fan system to stabilize the flight time.

The difference in the air brakes is it’s computers. While the rocket is launching, it talks to a computer on the ground, analyzes it’s speed and target altitude, and deploys the airbrakes at a specified angle to hit that target. “[For every data point] we have an optimal air brake angle between zero and ninety,” Weinstein explained.

When the parachute deploys, a motor fan system is engaged that sits in the upper casing of the rocket. The fans are bi-directional. “That means they can either add six seconds to our flight time, or subtract three seconds,” Weinstein said.

Students are competing for scholarships. “For the top ten teams especially, there’s a fair bit of scholarship money,” Wilkerson said. Companies like Boeing and Raytheon, along with many others, help sponsor TARC. The competition awards over $100,000 in scholarships across several categories.

In addition to scholarships, some of the teams will also be invited to the  National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Student Launch Initiative (SLI). “[It] runs in coordination with the NAR. Some of the teams, the high scoring teams here, will be invited to participate in the Student Launch Initiative as well.” Wilkerson said.

Normally, the highest scoring teams would advance to the International Rocketry Challenge. Typically, this competition is held in either London or Paris. Due to COVID and travel concerns, TARC is not competing the the International Rocketry Challenge in 2021.

The National Finals will conclude on June 20th, with a virtual awards ceremony on June 28th.

If you want to get involved with model rockets locally, the Tri-Cities Rocketeers is planning on hosting another local rocket range later this year. You can find details by checking their website here.