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Student Team Wins World’s Largest College Rocket Competition

Terps Look Ahead to Higher Altitudes, Broadened Membership Next Year

By Jennifer Figgins Rooks

group of students poses with rocket, Maryland state flag and M bar flag

In only its fourth time competing for the Spaceport America Cup, a rocket-building University of Maryland team took the top award.

Photo by Jim Wilkerson

Flying a 12-foot rocket named Honu, a University of Maryland student team soared to overall victory last week in the world’s largest intercollegiate engineering competition of its kind.

The Terrapin Rocket Team also took first place among student-designed entries reaching at least 10,000 feet in altitude at the 2024 Spaceport America Cup in Las Cruces, New Mexico; it drew 122 teams from six continents.

It marks a rapid ascent for UMD. Just two years ago, the team finished 30th in the competition, in which students launch solid-, liquid- and hybrid-fuel rockets to target altitudes of 10,000 and 30,000 feet.

The team of 75 Maryland engineering students has worked for the past year to refine the design of, build and test their nearly 13-foot-tall rocket. Honu, which means “turtle” in Hawaiian, features a carbon fiber fin can with Terps Rocket’s signature stability-providing fins, a carbon fiber section they attach to, and an airbrake, custom avionics and payload.

“We're building everything from the ground up completely custom,” said Sunjum Mehta ’25, chief engineer and an aerospace engineering major. “That's a really hard challenge, and not a lot of teams do it. But we're making progress year over year.”

Beyond the students’ design dedication, Mehta also credits strong recruiting and retention of team members as contributing factors in the team’s success. They welcomed nearly 60 new members this past year, and dozens completed a skill-based certification program designed to ensure safety in hobby rocketry.

While the failure of its brake system just before the competition ignited more than a little anxiety, the team rallied with engineering solutions in real time, and was prepared to launch in the New Mexico desert.

“We were a lot more organized this year,” said Sophie Jack ’26, co-lead on the airbrakes sub-team. “Last year was definitely a big learning experience, but this year, everyone knew what they needed to do, and just did it.”

The team is savoring the overall victory in its fourth outing at the Spaceport America Cup, but is already looking ahead to next year—with an eye toward moving into the 30,000-foot category. That poses a logistical challenge, since the closest approved launch location for testing rockets at that altitude is in Kansas.

And, as the new school year approaches, it will also be looking for a few new team members.

“You don’t have to be an aerospace engineering major,” Jack said. “There’s video challenges and other aspects of competition that could be interesting for business or marketing majors.”

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