Physics Students Ready to Launch Pumpkins

Central physics students are taking on SDSM&T students this weekend in a pumpkin launch competition.

By Charlie Perry

A crowd holds its breath as a pumpkin flies through the crisp September air. As they wait for it to plummet from the sky, the team that launched the gourd stands hopefully by their trebuchet, wondering whether they’ll set the day’s record. A trebuchet, Webster’s dictionary tells us, is a “Medieval engine of war for hurling large stones.” Physics classes know the meaning all too well, since they have built one themselves and plan to be that team breathlessly watching their pumpkin soar to its destruction.

Traditionally, Central’s physics program makes smaller, more conservative projects, but this year is different. This year, Central has entered two teams into the trebuchet competition against students from the School of Mines. You might be asking yourself what difference that makes? Well, for one, there is the pressure of competing against students who plan to engineer things like this for a job once they graduate. For another, instead of the 4 foot tall, 300 lb trebuchet that Central created in the past to launch dwarf pumpkins, they have graduated to to an 8ft tall, 1000 lb trebuchet, designed to fire a 10lb pumpkin up to 300 feet (the full length of a football field). This means that students now need heavy duty building material to support the counterweight needed to launch the full size pumpkins.

This counterweight comes in many different forms, from weights found in the weight room or boxes filled with water or rocks, to the more extraordinary forms like wheels from excavators or bags of cement. These are held by a variety of different contraptions or methods, from wooden boxes on a pendulum to weights strapped together with a large chain. None of this guarantees the trebuchet will work, by any stretch. But so far the hopeful students who have built them are trusting them.

The expectations of Central’s two 15-person teams competing aren’t high this year, but they’re both working hard to give the aspiring pros from Mines a run for their money. Literally. While Central’s teams won’t get the entire $2000 that is awarded for first place, they are in the running for a $200 award if they are able to defeat the Mines teams. That cash will most likely be used to pay off the debts they have incurred purchasing building supplies. The competition is Saturday, September 24 at 9am, and only then will the students know if they will earn more than just a grade for their hard work!

Photo credit: Launching Pumpkins by Tom Carroll on Flickr