Yale Aerospace Club's Payload Pays Off At Rocket Competition

The Yale Undergraduate Aerospace Association (YUAA) took second place in the payload category at Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC) last weekend.

The team arrived at Green River, Utah with its first biology-related project - a rocket that collects air samples during its flight. They were competing against about 80 teams from the U.S., as well from India, China, Turkey and Egypt.

The competition's rocket launch was delayed by one day due to winds, which diminished only slightly.

"The team had expected a max height of about 10,000 feet but because of the high winds, they got up to between 8,000 and 9,000 feet," said Pratik Gandhi '18, YUAA's director of development. "Which wasn't really disappointing because many teams couldn't launch at all because of the high winds."

A major part of the IREC competition is the Space Dynamics Lab Payload Challenge, which calls for each team's rocket to have a payload that contributes something of scientific value. The YUAA team decided to use the payload for a metagenomics survey, in which genetic material is taken directly from environmental samples for further study. In this case, the payload collected air samples at the rocket's highest point. After recovering the air samples from the rocket, the team got immediately to work.

"On the same day as the launch, on Friday night, they stayed up to extract the DNA from their payload," Gandhi said. They used a device called a laminar flow hood that the team members made themselves to keep prevent contamination. On Saturday, they ran PCR tests on the sample.

Although the team successfully found bacteria and DNA in the sample at a test flight in March, they didn't have the same luck with the samples at the competition.

"This time they didn't end up getting a positive I.D. for the bacteria, although they know the sampler worked and the payload worked because there was dust in the payload that they collected," Gandhi said. "Even though they weren't able to find bacteria, they still got a nice confirmation of their ability to keep a clean environment for the payload."

That was enough, he said, to put the team in second place, a repeat of the team's success at the competition two years ago.