September 15, 2013

Young Maine rocket scientists filling void left by NASA cuts

A team of current and former UMaine students shows the potential of an amateur space program.


The endless void of space may be humankind's final frontier, but here on Earth, there is another kind of frontier, one that sees younger and younger scientists-in-training building larger and more ambitious rockets.

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Mike Ostromecky, 22, of Winslow and six colleagues plan to launch an 18-foot, 500-pound rocket nearly 35 miles into the atmosphere this week. He designed the 5-foot rocket he is holding, which reached 2,000 feet.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

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Team Ursa members hold the rocket they plan to send about 35 miles into the atmosphere. They are, from left: Josh Mueller of Cannon Falls, Ryan Means of York, Luke Saindon of Deer Isle, Alex Morrow of Washburn, Robert Miller of Portland and Gerard Desjardins of Mapleton. Winslow resident Michael Ostromecky is not pictured.

Contributed photo

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If the Maine team's rocket is successful in Nevada this week, it will be used to further a new branch of research that relies on high-altitude biological sampling.

"There's a vast part of the atmosphere that we can't access very readily," said Tom Atchison, founder of the California-based Mavericks Civilian Space Foundation.

The planet's atmosphere extends 64 miles up. Airplanes can't go much more than a quarter of that height, while research balloons can get to about 25 miles.

Researchers haven't been able to get to the tiny spores and biota that might live higher than that.

Studying those airborne organisms could help answer a question that's been bugging evolutionary biologists since they first began to understand life's first stages. Early in the story of evolution, Atchison said, there was an explosion of diversity, where the number of primitive species expanded rapidly, setting the stage for the vastly diverse set of life forms that today range from beetles to people.

"We don't understand how that took place," Atchison said. One theory, he said, is that small organisms floated into the upper atmosphere, were exposed to ultraviolet rays and space radiation, and then fell back into the ocean, where they rehydrated and mutated.

"They suspect that a lot of the life on Earth came about as a result of this mechanism," he said.

– Matt Hongoltz-Hetling

A group of seven current and former University of Maine students from around the state, including one from Winslow, will make history this week when, if all goes well, it will launch an 18-foot-tall, 500-pound rocket they designed and built themselves nearly 35 miles into the atmosphere.

The launch, funded in part by an Augusta-based organization, is an example of young amateur engineers taking it upon themselves to fill two vacuums -- the first, an economic void created when the U.S. government began pulling back resources from its space program, and the second the deep, endless void of space.

Amateur-initiated space programs are becoming more common, and more desperately needed, according to Tom Atchison, founder of the Mavericks Civilian Space Foundation, located in a NASA research park in California.

The purpose of the Mavericks, which is also supporting the project, is to instill passion for space exploration among young people by helping them to build their own spacecrafts, he said.

This particular rocket launch is special, Atchison said.

"It's one of the first ones I've seen that's actually been built and designed by undergraduate engineering students," he said.

Much is riding on the success of the rocket's test flight, which will take place this week, when the weather is optimal, from a site in Black Rock, Nev., a remote section of the desert where a launching pad is used to send up rockets on a regular basis.

If the student design proves successful, it will make a small but meaningful contribution to the future of life on Earth -- as well as answer questions about its deep past.

The students' design will also serve as a model for hundreds of smaller rockets, built in classrooms around the country, said Atchison, who founded the Mavericks in 2002.


Michael Ostromecky, 22, of Winslow joined the rocket team in 2012, as its only junior member two years ago. The team's other members were working on the rocket design as a senior project in the university's mechanical engineering department, and Ostromecky began hanging around, hoping to find a way he could contribute.

Ostromecky was already a confirmed rocket enthusiast, a personal passion that dated back to when he was 7 and flew his first model rocket.

"When I saw it go off, I wanted to do it again," he said. "I wanted to do it bigger. I wanted to make it better."

Now, Ostromecky is the only team member who is still a student. The others -- Luke Saindon of Deer Isle, Ryan Means of York, Gerard Desjardins of Mapleton, Alex Morrow of Washburn, Josh Mueller of Cannon Falls and Robert Miller of Portland -- have all graduated.

They call themselves Team Ursa, a reference both to the constellation Ursa Major and, Latin for bear, also a reference to the University of Maine mascot, a black bear.

The senior project was initially just theory -- the students set out to create their own more efficient rocket design, and spent hours calculating airflow and rates of atmospheric pressure, using computer designs as models.

Over time, though, the project evolved. The students began building pieces of the rocket, milling sheets of aluminum and welding pieces together in the campus' Crosby Laboratory. They began receiving funding and active support from the Mavericks and other groups, who helped them to equip their design with the electronics needed to bring it to life. The rocket's larger pieces, which couldn't be finished with the equipment at hand, were sent to other companies for completion.

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Additional Photos

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Team Ursa’s rocket project is shown in an early chalkboard concept from 2012.

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