Students Present Papers at AIAA Conference

June 8, 2016

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T. J. Campbell (left) and John Brewer, each made a presentation during the AIAA SciTech conference in San Diego, California, in January 2016.

In ME554 Aerospace Design, taught by Dr. Masataka Okutsu, students would launch model rockets to verify their trajectory calculations. To be successful, everything that affects the motion of the vehicle must be understood.

These rockets were propelled by off-the-shelf motors widely used by hobbyists. During the semester, students needed to calculate the theoretical limit of the “boosts” these motors could produce. (Rocket motors may be thought of as fireworks designed for thrusts, rather than visual effects.) Unfortunately, the manufacturer did not disclose the exact makeup of the propellant, information necessary for the analysis.

John Brewer, a mechanical engineering student, had a thought. “If no one could tell us what this propellant is made of, perhaps we could find out ourselves.”

Brewer dissected the motor casing and took out a sample of the propellant, presumed to be a kind of black powder—a generic name given for some combination of potassium nitrate, carbon, and sulfur. In addition to performing an infrared spectroscopy that could detect the presence of certain molecules, Brewer subjected the sample to multiple chemical reactions in order to extract one substance at a time.

Due to Brewer’s work, the class was able to not only confirm that the propellant was black powder, but also identify the exact amount of each substance it contained.

Analysis of propellant was but one of many activities carried out for the model rocket project. Some students spent weeks writing trajectory code, while some others climbed up to the rooftop of engineering building to test the parachutes that their rockets deploy at high altitudes.

The project leader of this multidisciplinary endeavor was T. J. Campbell, an accelerated master’s student in mechanical engineering. Responsibility of Campbell included orchestration of rocket launches on the day of the flight tests.

Campbell and Brewer, each working with their classmates and the instructor, wrote papers about their project. Both papers were accepted for presentations in Education Track of a conference hosted by American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), a premier organization for aerospace engineers.

In early January of 2016, a week before the spring semester begins, Campbell and Brewer flew to California to attend the AIAA Science and Technology (SciTech) conference, held in a luxury hotel overlooking San Diego Bay. More than 4,000 researchers and professionals were discussing about recent breakthroughs in aviation and spaceflight.

“It was inspiring to see the cutting edge of research in the aerospace industry,” said Campbell. “I was honored to be a part of this event with my own presentation.”

Campbell and Brewer also said that valuable experiences came not just from the conference, but also from the preparation before the trip.

“I learned a lot by writing a paper for the conference,” said Brewer. “After spending many hours perfecting the manuscript at the professional standard, I am now more prepared to take on a new project in the future.”

For their achievements, Campbell and Brewer received the Mary Ann Sestili Ph.D. Award.