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Flying High

Team Astral, a team of undergraduate students from the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in Dehradun, won the prestigious CanSat Competition 2017 in Texas. 

Aerospace and space are two of the most topical areas of research today. For science students, winning the prestigious CanSat Competition conducted in Texas would be a high point. A team of undergraduate students from the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, has done just that at the 2017 competition. Team Astral, as they call themselves, also won the Best Team Trophy at Tarleton State University, Stephenville, Texas.

The CanSat Competition is organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) to encourage students to design, build and launch space-type systems.

The competition is an annual event open to universities and colleges across the world. Teams need to first register, after which they go through an intense competition in order to get a place among the 40 selected for the final. These teams are then invited to launch their CanSat in Texas.

Excerpts from an interview with Vipul Mani, team leader of Team Astral, about the competition and the team’s experience.

Please tell us about the process that a team goes through to be selected for the CanSat competition.
The CanSat Competition is spread over five stages. Preliminary Design Review from the home country is the elimination round. The second stage, Critical Design Review, is in the home country too. Teams need to make a presentation to the officials in the U.S. at this stage on airwaves.

Once a team sails through these stages, it heads to Texas for the Flight Readiness Review. Next step is the actual Launch, followed by the Post Flight Review. The rockets are provided by the CanSat officials.

This year’s mission statement was to simulate a science vehicle using solar power. How did your project relate to it?
Every year, CanSat officials change their mission statement. This year, only solar powered electronics were allowed. Our team calculated the power requirement and the number of solar cells needed accordingly. We also came up with the placements and wing folding mechanism to design the vehicle.

The mechanism had to simulate a vehicle traveling through the planetary atmosphere, sampling the atmospheric pressure, temperature, speed, etc. For this mission statement, we made many prototypes and tested their flight. After undergoing a series of failures, we were able to come up with a design for a glider that met the flight parameters.

The glider also had high-end electronics setup mounted inside it. It took eight months to minimize the size and weight, and test its flight worthiness.

Is it mandatory to have a mentor in the United States and register through this agency to take part in this competition?
A contact person is provided to each team once they are registered for this competition. The mentor can be anyone from the organizing institution. Our technical mentor was Jude Absolom, director of a chain of institutions in Hyderabad.

Team Astral was formed under the guidance of Dr. Ugur Guven in 2013. It has been participating in this competition since then.

Please tell us about the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun. 
The University of Petroleum and Energy Studies has a dedicated course on aerospace engineering. There are two low subsonic wind tunnels and a flight simulator, dedicated to providing industrial exposure to undergraduate and postgraduate students.

As an aerospace project involves technicalities from many other branches, like electronics engineering, computer science engineering, material science engineering etc., the university runs a specialization course on all the above-mentioned branches.

What was the learning experience of Team Astral?
After working on the project for two years, we have finally done it and that feels exhilarating to all of us. Going to Texas to participate in the launch was a great learning experience. Though it was a tough competition for the points to reach the top, the atmosphere was a friendly one. The teams were willing to help each other and even provide their electronics equipment, if needed.

CanSat is not just a competition. Rather, it provides everyone involved an opportunity to learn as an individual, grow as a team and mature as a person.


Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist who writes on travel, film, and women and gender issues. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.