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UTEP Rocket Team Competes at Spaceport America Cup

Weeklong competition showcased engineering skill, innovation and sportsmanship

Thousands of people from around the world gathered recently to shoot rockets into the air in the middle of the desert near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Dust storms erupted periodically, pausing launches and sending dirt flying over every available surface. But when launches resumed, every face turned toward the sky to watch the rockets lift off, reach their peak and fall back to Earth.

Members of the Sun City Summit Rocket Team watch the launch of Daedalus, the rocket they built over the course of two semesters.
Members of the Sun City Summit Rocket Team watch the launch of Daedalus, the rocket they built over the course of two semesters.

Students at The University of Texas at El Paso participated in the 2023 Spaceport America Cup, an international rocketry competition. Watch their rocket, Daedalus, take off.

Among the groups of students camped in the desert was team 106, the Sun City Summit Rocket Team from the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics Departments at The University of Texas at El Paso. They traveled from El Paso to join over 5,000 students for the 2023 Spaceport America Cup, a weeklong intercollegiate competition and celebration of rocket engineering that welcomed teams from around the United States and the globe, including Australia, Algeria, Mexico, Turkey, South Korea, Brazil, Thailand and Italy. The annual event is the largest of its kind in the world and takes place at Spaceport America, a facility built by the state of New Mexico to serve as a commercial launchpad for satellites, spaceships and other space-bound vehicles.

For the team from UTEP, the Cup was the culmination of months of effort to design, source parts for and build a functional rocket that would successfully take off and carry a payload — an added component embedded in the rocket that serves a specific function. The team competed in the 10,000 feet commercial bracket, one of six award categories based on launch height (10,000 feet or 30,000 feet), type of propulsion fuel (solid, liquid or hybrid) and how the propulsion fueling system was developed (commercially purchased or developed by students). 

“This year I felt a lot more confident in our ability to succeed because of our prior experience,” said UTEP team lead Jonathan Cucciniello. “It was really fun and I’m happy to see people who have never done anything like this see the project come to fruition at launch. It’s surreal.”

Cucciniello is a native of Long Island, New York and a U.S. Army veteran who graduated in May with his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. When he started his degree at UTEP, the rocket program did not yet exist. After learning about the Spaceport America Cup, he and a group of fellow engineers were inspired to start one themselves; they competed for the first time in 2022. 

Hours before this year’s competition, the students painstakingly put the final touches on their rocket beneath a tent in the desert. Imprinted in bold blue letters on the white rocket was the name ‘Daedalus,’ a skilled architect and craftsman in Greek mythology. When the rocket was fully assembled and passed a safety inspection, they waited patiently for hours in the heat for their turn to launch.

The team ultimately placed 57th out of 159 teams. While Sun City Summit didn’t take home any prizes, they lived out the Cup’s motto, “Work hard, have fun and make history,” and left satisfied with their rocket’s performance. They also demonstrated exceptional sportsmanship throughout the competition, sharing supplies and know-how with other teams, cheering on their competitors and even traveling to pick up a student from another university who ran out of gas before reaching the Spaceport site.

Alejandro Medina is a senior in UTEP's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. As a co-captain of the avionics sub-team, he and his teammates were responsible for the electronics and computer systems installed in the rocket. During the launch, the team tracked the rocket’s flight data and then used a built-in GPS to determine where it landed so they could recover it. A custom system built into the rocket allowed them to “text” the rocket, which would then respond with its location coordinates. 

It was Medina’s first time competing at the Spaceport America Cup. He said he enjoyed getting to know his teammates through the process and seeing each of them work together toward a common goal.

“One thing I enjoyed about the trip is that each team had their own task to accomplish,” he said. “Overall, our rocket was a huge success because we were able to recover it with minimal damage, which didn’t happen the first year.”

Daedulus reached its apogee, or highest point, at approximately 8,946 feet and successfully deployed its payload, a system that emerged from the rocket during launch to deposit ink on a board, simulating 3-D printing in a dynamic environment.

Success in the cup is determined not just by how the rocket performs during launch but also by whether its components can be successfully recovered once it returns to Earth. Valeria Loza Arango, a junior studying mechanical engineering at UTEP, was the recovery team lead. She said the recovery process took about two hours and involved walking into the desert, locating the rocket and carrying it back to their tent. The rocket landed in a cactus but sustained minimal damage and can be repaired and launched again. Loza Arango plans to join the team next year and continue serving as recovery team lead.

“I was really excited about this whole process,” she said. “This is one of the best experiences I’ve had at UTEP.”

Last Updated on July 11, 2023 at 12:00 AM | Originally published July 11, 2023

By MC Staff UTEP Marketing and Communications