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Rocket Rocket Payload Project Warrants Hands-On Learning Opportunities

September 2, 2011

During the summer, a number of University of Wyoming (UW) College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) and College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) students participated in the first experimental NASA RockSat - X sounding rocket payload project. This was the first student-involved payload project to have the skin of the sounding rocket ejected moments before apogee to allow on-board payloads full exposure to the space environment.

The project was constructed through corroborative efforts from engineering’s senior design course and the Physics Department’s rocket science course. The project was managed by Dr. Paul Johnson and was constructed to encompass involvement from students in electrical and mechanical engineering as well as in physics. The team consisted of: Acting Team Leader, Eric Robinson, mechanical; Acting Team Co-Leader Michael Stephens, electrical; Patrick Weber, mechanical; Dorin Blodgett, mechanical; Kevin Brown, mechanical; Heather Choi, mechanical engineering/physics; Ben Lampe, electrical, and Anne-Marie Suriano, physics.

The project, being highly disciplinary, added a real world experience and brought a fantastic opportunity for participants to witness how other disciplines think and what they have to offer. The project was monitored by NASA engineers throughout most of the development and also involved aid from UW’s CEAS Machine Shop and engineering faculty, all of which added professional influence to the project’s final functioning design.

On July 21, UW’s student payload was launched at NASA Wallops Space Center in Virginia. The project objective was to collect micrometeorites in our upper atmosphere (aka the thermosphere) and quantify launch conditions. The payload was designed to house a medium known as aerogel to capture the space particles that would be exposed to space via a mechanical bridge. This gel was used on NASA’s stardust mission which was the inspiration for this mission. Aerogel is a fantastic medium for capture micro-particles, however, when it is saturated by any liquid it quickly dissolves. Therefore, a water seal was a crucial designed component for the payload.

Prior to launch all payload operations functioned according to design and passed all of NASA’s stringent environmental and telemetry integration testing. However, during actual flight reentry conditions were more severe than anticipated by the NASA engineers. The payload skeleton, serving as the main support structure for all the on-board payloads, was designed to tumble as it reenters the atmosphere to mitigate concentrated heat loads. This tumbling did not take quick effect and the payloads were “cooked” rather quickly burning away the interface from the payloads to the NASA telemetry. Unfortunately, this disconnection shorted out the electrical system and caused the door of the payload to slightly open, breaking the payload’s water seal. When the payload hit the Atlantic the on board aerogel was flooded with salt water and quickly turned into salt tablets.

Still, the mission was not a complete loss. The payload was able to quantify acceleration and temperature parameters for most of its flight which will aid in future payload designs. The project has been approved by the head of the Geology Department to be displayed in the geologies museum’s space and interplanetary exhibit. The payload as well as documents, videos and photographs of the project will be incorporated in the display.

 “Despite the outcome of the mission I can attest to having one of the best project experiences to date, says student participant Eric Robinson. “I was given the chance to learn not only how to apply my current engineering knowledge to a project but to build on it significantly, by working hand-in-hand with the university’s machine shop and faculty as well as with NASA Wallop’s Engineers. The knowledge and perspective that I have been give through this project will defiantly aid me in all of my future engineering endeavors.”


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