Penn State students join international rocket research team


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Alyssa Grube, a sophomore studying Engineering Science and Mechanics, got an email inviting her to enroll in an electrical engineering special topics course focused on The Grand Challenge Student Rocket – G-Chaser, she was intrigued. The course engages engineering and science students of any academic year in a multi-year international sounding-rocket research project that will study the upper atmosphere in the cusp of the earth’s magnetic field.

Taught by Tim Wheeler assistant professor of electrical engineering, Sven Bilén, professor of engineering design, electrical engineering, aerospace engineering and department head of the School of Engineering Design, Technology and Professional Programs, and Tim Kane, professor of electrical engineering, the class is giving students the opportunity to develop research collaborations with renowned atmospheric scientists from around the globe.

“I was interested in the subject material and I really wanted to learn how such a large group collaborates on a long-term project and organizes such an endeavor,” Grube said about why she signed up.

Along with students in Norway, Puerto Rico and three other U.S. universities, Penn Staters will contribute tried-and-true scientific instruments along with engineering development of new instruments to G-Chaser. The instruments will give the students an opportunity to collect important scientific data and to work with world-renowned scientists and engineers to interpret their findings.

G-Chaser is part of a larger campaign called the “Grand Challenge”, which consists of seven scientific rockets from Norway, the U.S. and Japan. The Grand Challenge is a coordinated effort to study the dynamics of the atmosphere where the earth’s magnetic field lines converge at the magnetic pole. The rockets will launch from two sites in northern Norway over a period of several months. An extensive network of radar and optical instrumentation will be assembled to support the Grand Challenge mission.

A decade ago, Penn State also launched from Norway a student rocket designed and built in collaboration with Norwegian students, which was a huge success. The Esprit rocket program was of a similar scale as the G-Chaser rocket, encompassed a collaboration with three Norwegian universities, and flew successfully from Andøya, Norway in July, 2006.

“This is an amazing opportunity for students,” Wheeler said. “They will be participating at the very forefront of atmospheric science, discussing their work with leading scientists. Some of these scientists are at the end of their careers and our students will be just starting out—this represents over 80 years of combined scientific experience working together.”

Through a combination of the special topics course, individual studies, and volunteers, the project will continue at Penn State until the rocket is launched in January of 2019 and the data analyzed the following spring. Seniors and juniors will contribute their experience in formulating the project, while sophomores and freshman will see the project through to launch. They will experience the full project lifecycle, from concept design through interpretation of results and delivery of their findings at scientific conferences in the summer of 2019.

Students working on this project, according to Bilén, will not only have to meet a firm deadline under a set of economic, scientific, cultural and technological constraints but also develop excellent teaming, communication, and leadership skills, along with technical skill, to meet the group”s goals.

Andrew O’Neill, a junior electrical engineering major, was very interested in the G-Chaser project when he heard about it and decided to enroll in the course.

“I thought that this would be a good chance to be involved in the early stages of mission planning, something I have not been part of previously. I'm always trying to find ways to distinguish myself,” he said. “I would like to stand out from the crowd when it comes time to hunt for full-time jobs.”

Additionally, the subject matter was very intriguing.

“The G-Chaser project will allow me to get hands-on experience with atmospheric sciences and leverage what I’m learning in my EE courses,” he said. “I would very much like to put a LIDAR of some sort on this rocket, and thereby learn more about optical remote sensing and optics in general.”

The collaborative project has received seed funding from the competitively awarded College’s Global Engineering Leadership Program. The three professors submitted a proposal and were chosen as recipients because the G-Chaser work supports international collaboration for the College’s students and faculty and enhances the development of their global engineering leadership attributes.


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Rebekka Coakley

andrew o'neill at work in the rocket lab

Andrew O’Neill shows one of the tools that may be included on the student rocket to help study the upper atmosphere in the cusp of the earth’s magnetic field.

“Some of these scientists are at the end of their careers and our students will be just starting out — this represents over 80 years of combined scientific experience working together.”
—Tim Wheeler



The School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science was created in the spring of 2015 to allow greater access to courses offered by both departments for undergraduate and graduate students in exciting collaborative research in fields.

We offer B.S. degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, computer engineering and data science and graduate degrees (master's degrees and Ph.D.'s) in electrical engineering and computer science and engineering. EECS focuses on the convergence of technologies and disciplines to meet today’s industrial demands.

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The Pennsylvania State University

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Department of Computer Science and Engineering


Department of Electrical Engineering