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What’s the big deal about the Karman Line, again?

What’s the big deal about the Karman Line, again?

We do a lot of talk about “space” and the “Karman Line” in our social media and these blogs. But what does that mean? What’s the big deal?

Space is a vacuum. It’s the area above our planet’s atmosphere where there is nothing — so it’s all of the nothingness between our planet and all of the other celestial bodies. (Venus, the Sun, the asteroids, and black holes all included.)

Our solar system. Space extends much beyond this, though.

The Earth’s atmosphere isn’t pure. At various places around the globe, you can find various concentrations of essential gasses in the air. (Nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide are the key players.) However, the atmosphere also changes as you travel upwards. You know when flight attendants give that speech about air masks? That’s because the air at 33,000 feet is much thinner than at sea level — the atmosphere is less dense.

A prominent Hungarian-born aerospace engineer, Theodore von Kármán, spent much of his life studying jet engines at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He noticed that engine efficiency decreases alongside air density. At a certain point (100 km above sea level, about 62 miles), the atmosphere becomes so thin that engines simply don’t work any more.

That is the Karman Line.

A cartoon of the various sections of the Earth’s atmosphere. The Karman Line is highlighted in red.

So why does Castle Point Rocketry want to get there? Well, there’s a bit of an unofficial space race happening between colleges, at the moment. Space Enterprise at UC Berkeley has released a challenge to all other colleges: Who can get to the Karman Line (and therefore space) first?

So far, the record is held by University of Southern California — 44 km. Just under half the way there. Other key contenders are Boston University, UC San Diego, Delft University of Technology, and our very own neighbors, Princeton University.

So, Castle Point Rocketry is here to settle it. Who will be the first into space? Stevens Institute of Technology, obviously.