A sounding rocket launching from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia Aug. 23 will be carrying two University of Colorado Boulder student-built payloads and a pair of other payloads developed by students from Virginia Tech, Baylor University and the University of Puerto Rico.
The university experiments will be flown as part of an educational project called RockSat-X, which is designed to provide students with hands-on experience in designing, fabricating, testing and conducting experiments for space flight. The project is a joint effort between the CU-Boulder-based Colorado Space Grant Consortium and NASA.
"RockSat-X is part of a series of student flight programs designed to enhance students' skills and prepare them for careers at NASA and in the aerospace industry," said Chris Koehler, director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, or COSGC. Koehler is directing a series of activities this week at the Wallops Flight Facility for undergraduate and graduate students from around the nation who are involved with experiments on Thursday's flight to give them a better understanding of the requirements for developing space-based experiments.
The Aug. 23 experiments will launch on a two-stage sounding rocket that will reach a height of nearly 100 miles. One of the CU experiments consists of a small payload box carrying a 3-foot by 4-inch, rolled up swath of Mylar -- a strong polyester composite film -- that will be deployed on a 3-foot-long boom and unfurled, much like a small sail.
The CU students, collaborating with Composite Technology Inc. of Lafayette, Colo., believe such a payload could be attached to tiny satellites like the educational Rubik's Cube-sized CubeSat satellites regularly flown by college students working with NASA. The unfurling of the small sails on CubeSat satellites that have completed their space tasks would increase the effects of drag and shorten their time in orbit, causing them to burn up in the atmosphere instead of continuing to circle Earth as potentially hazardous space debris, said Koehler.
The COSGC is a statewide organization involving 17 colleges, universities and institutions around Colorado and is funded by NASA to give students access to space through innovative courses, real-world, hands-on telescope and satellite programs, and interactive outreach programs, said Koehler.
COSGS is one of 52 space grant consortia in the nation -- including Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia -- and is one of the most active, having flown scores of payloads on high-altitude balloons, sounding rockets and even space shuttles, giving thousands of undergraduates and graduate students a taste of space research since the program began in Boulder in 1989, said Koehler.
In addition to the CU-Boulder experiment on board the sounding rocket, the University of Puerto Rico will be flying a mass spectrometer to analyze atmospheric particles and pressure, while a team made up of Virginia Tech and Baylor University students have teamed up to build a joint payload to measure nitric oxide and atmospheric dust in the atmosphere.
All of the action aboard the sounding rocket will be caught by CU-Boulder's second payload, a package of seven cameras that will record video and still images aboard the sounding rocket in high definition. The recorded material will be made available to the public shortly after the payload is recovered by NASA. The rocket payload will be airborne for about 15 minutes before parachuting into the Atlantic Ocean some 60 miles from Wallops Island.
Koehler has led three student space research programs at the Wallops facility this year, beginning in June with a hands-on workshop called RockOn followed by RockSat-C and RockSat-X. "At each level the experiments become more complex, which provides students with an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the requirements for developing space-based experiments," said Koehler.
Aerospace engineering sciences student Ethan Long, the software team lead for the CU-Boulder camera package, said he is excited about the launch. "We know our experiment works on the ground. Now we just need to prove it works in space."
A junior from Highlands Ranch, Colo., Long said he knew when he came to CU-Boulder the university had a good reputation in aerospace engineering, but was not aware of the hands-on experience available to undergraduates until he arrived on campus. "I saw a flier about an open house being held by the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, so I went," he said.
"To be honest, I never thought that I would have the chance to build payloads for rockets beginning as a freshman in college," said Long. "It's been an unexpected opportunity for me, and I'm really happy about it."
The project manager for the CU-Boulder payloads is Nathaniel Keyek-Franssen. A number of other CU students from previous semesters were involved in payload design and development for the mission, said Koehler.
Explore further: NASA's Orion spacecraft back in Florida after test flight
More information: The launch, slated to take place between 6:30 and 10 a.m. on Aug. 23, will be available live on Ustream at www.ustream.com/channel/nasa-wallops