A Rocket Launch for International Student Satellites (ARLISS)
Brief History

Since 1999 A Rocket Launch for International Student Satellites has been launching student projects $\sim$12,000 feet into the Nevada sky. These hobbyist rocketeers operate under the Association of Experimental Rocketry of the Pacific and hold four launches a year in the Black Rock Desert north of Reno.

The ARLISS Project is a collaborative effort between students and faculty at Stanford University Space Systems Development Program and other educational institutions, and high power rocketry enthusiasts in Northern California, to build, launch, test and recover prototype satellites, miniaturized to fit inside a soft drink can (hence “CanSats”) in preparation for an Earth orbit or Mars orbit space launch. – ARLISS.org

Competition Requirements

I have participated in the ARLISS competition twice. Each time new things are learned, timelines are bastardized, and programming skills are tested. The above quote outlines one of the two classes within the competition—the 350ml class. The other class, which is what I have participated in, is called the open class. The class requirements are outlined in the table below:

  mass diameter height
350ml $\geq$350g $\geq$66mm $\geq$240mm
open $\geq$1050g $\geq$146mm $\geq$240mm

These requirements are very strict and cannot be exceeded. You will be disqualified from the competition. However, you may be still be able to launch. If you are within the diameter and height requirements but a little overweight, you might be able to persuade your rocketeer if you ask nicely ​rocket​.


Within both classes there are two missions to choose from: comeback or mission completion. These missions have a few further requirements (mostly for safety) that I will outline in bullets:

  • Device must have a measure against getting lost
    • Such as a radio transmission, or simply fluorescent paint
  • Device must have mechanism to slow fall
    • You cannot have a device free-fall from 12,000 ft!
  • Device cannot be unloaded from rocket, unless an hour has passed
    • If an hour has passed, you are permitted to unload and perform maintenance on the device
  • Only the first two launches will be counted toward the competition.
    • You can launch more than twice, but only the first two are counted

There are further requirements, but they are different for each mission.

Mission: Comeback

This mission is typically the most popular, and the only mission I have participated in. The objective is to survive the launch which exposes the device to about 10Gs of Quasi-static acceleration. This is followed by an ejection charge which deploys the parachute for the rocket. The device must then deploy its own parachute and safely land.

After surviving these violent environments the device must then autonomously navigate to a predetermined gps coordinate. The real issue is balancing the weight requirement and battery life, because there is no way of knowing how far the device will land.

If the device reaches the target autonomy, must be proven to the judges. This is in the form of a report demonstrating the algorithms used and whatnot.

Mission: Completion

This mission is defined by the group participating. The device must go through the launching procedure, but beyond that it is up to the imagination. For example, a team from Tokyo Tech created a shaft boring machine satellite. This device (after being ejected out a rocket, and landing!) righted itself and drilled a tiny shaft into the ground. For their first launch the device was able to bore a 20mm deep hole, unfortunately the second launch broke the standing mechanism. The device was able to extend the depth of the drill bit by attaching shafts; it was extremely impressive. Another very impressive project was a 3D printer created and developed from scratch by The Seoul National University Satellite Team (SNUSAT). Their mission was for a 3D printer rover to be deployed on a distant planet to print replacement parts. This mission requires a lot of creativity, but can be extremely rewarding.

The Banquet and Awards

For an extra fee, you can pay to eat breakfast at the banquet while each team presents a short presentation explaining their project. Be prepared to write down notes for each team because there will be voting after all the presentations. The awards for the Comeback Competition are:

accuracy award

  • Who was closest to the Target Point (this is not voted on)

technology award

  • Who “inspires” future teams through a combination of the flight mechanism, the ground locomotion mechanism, the comeback algorithm, and the team’s fighting spirit

Two more awards are available to all teams participating in both missions (these are directly from the CanSat Regulations at ARLISS document):

best mission award

  • What team receives the largest amount of points according to this criterion:
    • Mission success level at ARLISS (5 points)
    • Significance of mission (5 points) 
    • Uniqueness of technologies (5 points)
    • Quality of presentation (3 points)

university space engineering consortium award

  • This award is given to the team that receives the highest evaluation from the Mission Competition Committee organized by UNISEC

Final Thoughts

The arliss competition is a very challenging and unique endeavor. So challenging in fact, very few teams complete the comeback mission. Several projects broke on impact (our’s did) and every year a few teams lose their project to the desert. I wrote this article to shed a little light on the competition and maybe influence schools to participate (The United States is very underrepresented). Thanks for reading!