Rock On! Student Experiments Set to Launch on Thursday

A NASA Terrier-Orion sounding rocket leaves the launch pad at the Wallops Flight Facility on June 24, 2010, carrying RockOn! and RockSat-C experiments. Photo Credit: NASA

This week, university students behind four atmospheric and technology experiments will get to see their ideas take flight. Literally. Four student-built experiments are set to launch on a NASA suborbital sounding rocket. Launching this coming Thursday between 6:30 and 10 a.m from the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, the experiments are part of the RockSat-X program. 

RockSat-X is a joint program between NASA and the Colorado Space Grant Consortium at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It’s specially designed to provide students with hands-on experience in designing, fabricating, testing, and conducting experiments on real launches. It’s also designed to create a reusable, modular payload system based around decks designed for suborbital flights with Wallops Flight Facility’s Sub-SEM ring assembly. It’s a standardized approach that provides customers low cost access to space.

RockSat isn’t a sink or swim type program for students; they get to work their way up to a launch. They start with a hands-on workshop called RockOn, then go through the RockSat-C program before getting into RockSat-X. At each level, the experiments become more complex, giving students the chance to really understand the technologies they’re working with and the requirements of space-based research.

In designing experiments for launch, the RockSat-X program sets a series of constraints in which students have to work. This includes a set payload structure with pre-defined mechanical, power and data interfaces, as well as volume and mass limits. It is, in short, exactly the type of constraints NASA works with launching its own missions.

A RockOn! 2010 student participant works on a circuitry board during the hands-on workshop. Photo Credit: NASA

After that, it’s fair game for the students to design whatever experiments they want to run. Thursday’s launch will take four student-designed experiments. The University of Puerto Rico is sending a mass spectrometer to conduct analysis of atmospheric particles and pressure. Virginia Tech and Baylor universities have teamed up on an experiments that will measure nitric oxide and atmospheric dust. The University of Colorado’s experiments is a device designed to assist in de-orbiting small spacecraft. The Colorado Space Grant Consortium is flying seven cameras to capture all the action in high-definition; the video footage will be made publicly available after the payload it recovered.

The experiments will make a 15-minute, 98 mile high flight on a two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute rocket. At the payload’s apogee, RockSat-X’s ejectable skin and nose cone will expose the onboard experiments to the space environment. Additionally, the rocket will be de-spun to a reduced rate to allow for a greater range of experiments. The payload experiment bay will splash down via parachute in the Atlantic Ocean roughly 66 miles off the Virginia coast after which it will be recovered for re-use and experiment analysis.

This is the second launch of the program; the first was in August 2011. The hope is that these types of hands on programs culminating in launches will “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 (COSGC). This year, there are over 200 college and university students are involved in COSGC programs.

As for the students, they hope to expand their knowledge in aerospace related areas, applying new knowledge to old problems to avoid repeating any old mistakes. In the end, they will have contributed to the growing store of knowledge about interstellar travel and advances benefiting the space bound astronauts.

The launch will be broadcast live online on Thursday morning at NASA’s Wallops Ustream site: http://www.ustream.com/channel/nasa-wallops

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