Adapting STEM Competitions in Midst of Pandemic — CanSat Goes Virtual

Linda Grimm | December 22, 2020

Linda Grimm | December 22, 2020

Inspiring future engineers and their pursuit of creative solutions to space-related challenges has been the focus of the American Astronautical Society’s (AAS) CanSat Competition for the last 15 years. Hundreds of student teams from colleges and universities across the globe have participated in the annual competition, with top-scoring traveling to the Virginia Tech campus for an exciting launch weekend after months of -hard work and preparation.

The realities of the COVID-19 global pandemic mean the CanSat Competition will look a bit different in 2021, but AAS has committed to carrying out a virtual program that is just as challenging and engaging as prior international competitions.

2019 competitors examine their CanSat ahead of pre-flight tests.

The CanSat Competition is unique among space competitions in that it challenges students to complete the full lifecycle of a complex engineering project, from conceptual design to the operation of a space-type system. Teams participating in the 2021 competition will be tasked with designing a CanSat consisting of a container and two autorotating maple seed science payloads. The CanSat and its payloads must meet specific technical parameters to satisfy the competition’s requirements. The CanSat must reach an altitude that is 670-725 meters above the launch site, for example, and must descend—using a parachute—at a rate of 15 meters per second. One of the two payloads must be released at 500 meters, while the second must be released at 400 meters. Both the container and the two payloads must submit telemetry data until they land. Rockets will be provided, but student teams will be responsible for funding and building their CanSat’s.

CanSat Competition volunteers prepare a rocket for launch.

Organized in five phases, the CanSat Competition is designed to replicate a typical aerospace program on a smaller scale, with scoring based on the completion of real-world deliverables. Once a team’s application to the competition has been accepted, they must complete the preliminary design phase, during which students develop their designs, prototype, test concepts, and prepare a preliminary design review. For the 2021 competition, 48 teams will be invited to proceed to the third phase—critical design—once their preliminary design reviews are complete. The critical design phase requires teams to finalize their design, order or manufacture parts, test subsystems, develop the flight unit, and complete a critical design review. Launch weekend comes next, with teams presenting their entries for flight readiness review—including a drop test, fit check, and battery verification. The final phase involves a post-flight review, during which teams present their flight results and answer questions from the judge’s panel of AAS engineers.

A CanSat launches during the 2019 competition.

The AAS announced in November, 2020 that the in-person launch weekend would be cancelled for the 2021 competition due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and related health and safety concerns. Instead, competition teams will conduct live demonstrations of their CanSats via Zoom. Real-time payload data will be communicated to the competition judges using a service called Cloud MQTT. AAS will provide full details on how the competition will be conducted virtually by January 10.

Teams wondering how they might adapt to a virtual competition shaped by the pandemic may find some inspiration from 2020 competitors. The University of Hawai’i Maui College’s (UHMC) Engineering Technology Program’s Team Onipa’a placed first in the competition, which was judged only on the preliminary and complete design reviews because launch weekend was cancelled. Team Leader Arthur Agdeppa acknowledged his group was lucky to finish preliminary design and prototype building before the university shifted to all-virtual instruction due to the pandemic. But “once we went online-only…we often collaborated via Discord about the project, and we did our weekly progress report through Zoom with our advisor,” he said. Agdeppa added that “with our laptops connected via home internet or the UHMC outdoor wi-fi, we shared our ideas as if we were in the same room.”

A 2019 team makes final tweaks to their CanSat before launch.

The 2021 CanSat Competition is sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Virginia Tech, Siemens, Praxis Inc., Kratos, Lockheed Martin, and NRV Rocketry. The competition mission guide—which outlines all CanSat requirements and project deliverables—and other supporting documents are available on the official competition website.

Linda Grimm is a professional writer-editor from the Washington, D.C. metro area. She writes for publishing companies, trade and professional associations, and academic institutions, among others.