GREEN RIVER, Emery County — There's fire in the sky in southern Utah this weekend, and it's all from positively identified flying objects.
Rockets are flying in an annual competition that's getting bigger every year. Ten college teams from the United States, Canada and Brazil are launching rockets in the sixth annual Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition.
They're not shooting for the stars, but they're aiming high. The students win points for getting their rockets to reach a high point as close as possible to either 10,000 feet or 25,000 feet, depending on the division in which they're competing.
In a fiery launch Friday, a rocket built by students from California State University at Long Beach reached 9,169 feet before it parachuted back to Earth in the desert southwest of Green River.
"It's a lot of experience," said team member Abdul Chames. "The students build a rocket every year to come back here."
Another rocket reached an altitude of 10,310 feet after being launched by students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
UCLA fielded the biggest team in the competition, with 26 students, and the biggest rocket, measuring 16 feet from nozzle to nosecone.
"We had a lot of teamwork," said Justin Wang of the UCLA Rocket Project. "It's really, like, a character-building experience."
It's exciting for the students, but it's not just fun and games. The competition is intended to help launch careers in the aerospace industry. The students are doing real-world rocketry with potential technical and safety problems, building on what they learn in college.
Matthew Dushku, the range safety official for the competition, grills the teams before giving clearance for each launch. As one team prepared its rocket, Dushku went through a safety checklist and asked questions such as, "Tell me what's the procedure if we have a hang-fire where your squib's don't fire?"
Gil Moore, a rocket competition judge and a once-prominent official for Thiokol in Utah, said the contest usually involves only the best and most enthusiastic engineering students.
"We only play a little frosting on the cake at the end (of college)," Moore said, "to give them a kick to get them into the business."
Just like professional rocketeers at NASA, the students have frequent delays due to technical problems. It's up to each team to figure out how to get over pre-launch glitches.
UCLA's plan to launch on Friday was undone by two tiny pieces of hardware, lugs that guide the rocket along a launch-rail as it begins its fiery flight.
"We're hoping to launch all the way up to 25,000 feet," Wang said. "But the launch lugs broke off, and so we're not able to launch right now."
"They just fell off. We had only three, and two of them fell off," said team member Olya Filimonova. The team carried the huge rocket, arm in arm, back to their work area. They're hoping a new application of epoxy glue will cure in time for a launch later in the competition.
"Learning from the mistakes helps you troubleshoot and problem solve," Dushku said.
"If everything goes right the first time, then you don't get that experience."
Although the event is put on annually near Green River, no teams from Utah are involved this year.