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Cover of Engineering Advantage Magazine, Fall 2018 issue

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It IS Rocket Science

Fortunately, heartburn didn’t inspire a Cal Poly team to build a rocket that would be launched with “fast acting” Alka-Seltzers. But there was plenty of relief when a panel of judges invited the team to the national Alka-Rocket finals at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

Cal Poly was one of five universities represented in the contest, held in December. Created by Bayer, a pharmaceutical and life sciences company, the challenge invites students to create rockets powered by Alka-Seltzer effervescent tablets, made famous by the “plop-plop, fizz-fizz – oh, what a relief it is” commercial jingles. While the tablets can provide heartburn relief, they can also produce a reaction strong enough to launch small rockets, which is why the so-called Alka-Rockets are often used in American science classes to demonstrate the principles of chemistry and physics.

A panel of judges, including former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, invited Cal Poly Space Systems to compete in the challenge after seeing the design, execution and creativity of its rocket, which the team spent four months designing and building with a launcher.

“We found the optimum ratio of Alka-Seltzer to water in order to optimize the pressure by adjusting the volume of the pressure chamber,” said Lauren Fukaye, Cal Poly Space Systems’ PR officer. “We also made the rocket as thin as possible, while still able to contain our electronics and recovery mechanism in order to minimize drag.”

During the Dec. 12 contest, the Cal Poly rocket went roughly 200 feet high.

“The judges were supportive of our efforts to ensure safety for everyone at the competition, including our decision to prioritize our recovery system over our altitude,” Fukaye said.

Brigham Young University broke the world record for rocket height – 883 feet, more than doubling the previous record set by students from the University of Minnesota. Other finalists came from University of Georgia, Texas Tech and University of Minnesota.

The challenge was launched to create awareness for science, engineering and innovation. For the Cal Poly team, it also provided great hands-on experience, Fukaye said.

“Many of the newer members worked on the project to help them get more involved in the club, which was a great experience, especially with all of the more knowledgeable members as mentors.”

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