RALEIGH — With $2,500 in globally sourced funding raised Friday via Internet "crowdsourcing" and a payload designed to suck climate-changing carbon from the sky, the N.C. State entry in NASA's university rocketry contest could scarcely be more hip.
Its sleek, 9-foot craft also could have a legitimate chance of winning: The NCSU rocketry team scored a third in the 2010 contest and fourth last year with lower-tech, less-ambitious entries.
The idea of NASA's University Student Launch Initiative is to give students a healthy dose of practical engineering and hands-on research.
Competing universities must submit proposals in the fall to be considered. Those that qualify get to work with NASA scientists, engineers and contractors over the course of the school year on the required and elaborate written documentation for the projects.
Each entry must include a science or engineering experiment as its payload.
This year, NCSU is competing with 41 other institutions, including tech heavyweights such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The culmination is the "launch event" April 21 in Alabama, when the teams will send their creations skyward, once for practice before the main flight.
One of the goals is reaching a maximum altitude of as close to one mile as possible without actually reaching that height.
The NCSU team, which goes by Tacho Lycos - derived from the Greek words for "fast wolf" - is showing off the university's cross-disciplinary approach by blending knowledge from several fields, including structural, electrical, mechanical and chemical engineering and even textiles for the carbon cloth used for the airframe.
In the past two years, the team used relatively modest technology, such as the fiberglass cloth molded around a thick cardboard tube in the 2010 rocket.
This time, it's using aerospace-quality carbon fiber for the bulk of the construction. It's much more expensive, with nearly $1,000 in carbon cloth and epoxy resin, but is lighter, stronger and more durable.
"We wanted to be different and do something that was special this time," said Clark Moser, 22, a textile engineering major and the lead construction officer.
The team got some funding from grants. This time, though, Sean Maroni, a junior in mechanical engineering, suggested they also try Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform that connects people who have ideas for creative projects with donors from the general public.
The club had to receive at least $2,500 in pledges to earn the funding, and hit the goal early Friday morning, with 44 backers from as far away as Australia, England, Canada and the Netherlands.
"We still don't know who they all are," Moser said. "That last $80 came from some guy in India."
On Friday afternoon, Moser and a couple of other team members were sanding smooth the thick beads of epoxy adhesive attaching the carbon fiber fins to the main tube. It looks much like the small model rockets that kids launch in their backyards, but is much more powerful and requires elaborate safety procedures.
"If everything doesn't fit just right, it basically becomes a pipe bomb," Moser said, brandishing the precisely engineered metal tube that will contain the motor.
Just below the sleek nose will be the carbon scrubber. The idea behind the scrubber is to raise awareness about global climate change and to investigate a possible technique for removing carbon from the atmosphere, said Josef Khalil, 20, senior in mechanical engineering from Egypt, the team president.
The team hopes to make the rocket carbon neutral by removing at least as much carbon from the atmosphere as its engine emits on the way up.
Sensitive instruments aboard will measure the rocket's performance, as well as the amount of carbon in the air at different altitudes.
The other experiment will test an odd fluid's ability to cushion sensitive instruments from the violent shock of a rocket's acceleration.
The fluid, which costs several hundred dollars per liter, was donated by a local aerospace company and becomes thicker when a magnetic field passes through it.
For the experiment, the team will try to match just the right fluid thickness at any given instant with the amount of acceleration to cushion some test circuits.
On Friday, Moser pointed out a mismatch between the patterns of the carbon on adjacent tube sections. It won't affect the strength or function of the rocket, and will cost perhaps a couple of hundred dollars to build another, but that's what they're going to do, he said.
There is an award in the contest for aesthetics, but more to the point, the rocket will be a sleek advertisement for the team and the university.
"When you're making a $5,000 rocket, you want it to work well," Moser said.
"But it's worth an extra step if that's what it takes to make it look nice, too."