Rocket Competition: Sky Metagenomics Project

Competition rockets are one of YUAA’s longest-running traditions, with the last three years featuring teams that competed in either IREC or the Battle of the Rockets competition. This year’s team looks forward to continuing that tradition and improving upon the results of the previous years. The Rocket Competition team will be design, constructing, and launching a payload-carrying rocket to compete in the annual Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC) held annually in the United States.

The rocket team spent the first few meetings of the semester in helping the new members become familiarised with the fundamentals of rocketry. YUAA held a workshop on basic rocket engineering, which proved invaluable to the team members. Soon after was the certification launch, where the team leader and other members launched a test rocket from a dedicated launch site in order to become certified for the launch of the actual rocket at IREC.


The most important part of the rocket for IREC is the payload, and in late September the team decided to create a Sky Metagenomics payload that would collect air samples from the atmosphere to allow for testing the biodiversity of the earth’s atmosphere. These samples would later be in analysed in a wet lab in order to text for the presence of various micro-organisms. This payload was unique in being YUAA’s first foray into a biology-related project, adding a new dimension to our organisation.


Throughout the fall semester, the team worked on the preliminary design and began constructing the payload and rocket, which was affectionately christened “Ziggy Stardust”.  By the beginning of the spring semester, they had built the basic structure of the rocket, which measured 109 inches in length and 5.5 inches in diameter. To design the payload and prepare the protocols for DNA analysis, they enlisted the help and guidance of members in the biology department at Yale. The team spent the first half of the spring semester making modifications and adjustments to refine the design of the rocket and the payload, and were ready to test it by April.


On 9th April, the YUAA Rocket Team travelled to Maryland to test launch Ziggy at the Red Glare launch hosted by the Maryland Delaware Rocket Association (MDRA). Along with over a hundred other groups, our team wished to launch the rocket they have been working on all year, affectionately named “Ziggy Stardust”, in order to test the launch, recovery, and payload systems before the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition to be held this summer in Utah. The launch went off extremely smoothly – the rocket went up straight as an arrow and achieved a maximum altitude of 8,500 feet at apogee, exactly as predicted by simulations. This also marked the highest apogee achieved by any of the single stage rockets YUAA has ever built! Parachute deployment also went off without a hitch, and the team was able to recover the rocket without any damage to it during the landing.

Ziggy being prepped for launch at Red Glare!


Successful recovery after a smooth launch!

Buoyed by their successful launch at Red Glare, the team was ready to compete at the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), held in Green River, Utah, from 14th to 19th June – the largest university-level rocket competition in the world! After shipping Ziggy and the payload to Utah, the team spent the first couple of days preparing the rocket and payload systems for the launch, presenting their project at the symposium, and interacting with teams from all over the world.

Team photo at IREC 2016!


Prepping Ziggy’s electronics-bay before launch.

Although the first launch attempt was aborted due to inclement weather conditions, Ziggy was launched successfully the following day, reaching an apogee of 8,900 feet – slightly less than the expected altitude due to the presence of high wind. Even though the payload tested negative for the presence of DNA, the team managed to demonstrate it worked due to the presence of atmospheric dust in the sampler. And, in a repeat of the feat achieved by YUAA at IREC two years ago, the rocket team won Second Place in the Payload Category of the competition! It certainly was a very impressive feat, since the competition included over 50 teams from the US, Europe, India, China, and Egypt – a grand culmination to a year’s worth of hard work put in by the members of the team.

YUAA’s Ziggy Stardust on the launch rail!


Post-launch analysis of the samples collected by the metagenomics payload.

Brian Beitler was the leader of the Rocket Competition team. He was a sophomore in Calhoun during the 2015-2016 academic year, and his major is undecided at the moment. He worked on the Multi-Stage Rocket team his freshman year.

The 2016 YUAA Rocket Team would like to acknowledge the generous support of the Yale Undergraduate Aerospace Association (YUAA),  Jaymin Patel, Natalie Ma, and the rest of the Isaacs Lab of the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale University, the Neugebauer Lab of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University, the Yale Physics Department, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Yale University. We would also like to acknowledge Quanergy Systems and Alcoa Inc.  for their generous financial support.