Space and astronomy news and information for the American Southwest. Coverage includes Vandenberg AFB rocket and missile launches.

Rocket Launch a Learning Experience

New Mexico State University News Release

2006 October 16

Their payload was crushed but not their spirits.

"It's about three fingers high now," Stephen Horan, head of the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at New Mexico State University, said of the payload of instruments that flew on the inaugural rocket launch from New Mexico's Spaceport America.

The UP Aerospace rocket failed to make it into space before plunging back to earth on Sept. 25. Company officials are investigating the cause of the flight anomaly, but have said the single-stage rocket needed just three more seconds to reach space.

Among the payloads the rocket carried was a package of instruments - a flight computer and variety of sensors - like the ones in a small experimental satellite being developed by Horan and a group of faculty, staff and students in the NMSU College of Engineering.

Despite being unable to retrieve any data from the recovered payload - which was compressed to a fraction of its original size by the force of the impact - the rocket flight and the preparation for it provided valuable experience, Horan said.

"We learned things from this exercise and I'm really glad we had a chance to be part of it," he said. "We lost a couple thousand dollars' worth of hardware, but the future of our program didn't depend on it. Sure, we're disappointed, but we're going to take what we can learn from this and move on."

Larry Alvarez, systems technologist for the Space and Telemetry Center at the university, said the payload cylinder originally was about nine and three-quarter inches in diameter and 11 inches tall.

"When we got it back it was about two or three inches tall," he said. "It was like a squashed Coca-Cola can. We tried to peel it back in as careful and cautious a manner as we could in the hope that the board had survived, but unfortunately the chips on the memory board were cracked, so there was no way to recover data."

Alvarez said the payload included a prototype flight computer, earth sensors, accelerometers, a magnetometer and a pressure sensor. Flight data from the sensors was to be stored on a flash disk for retrieval after the flight, which would have given the NMSU team useful information about the performance of the sensors to be used on the satellite.

"It was a bittersweet event," Alvarez said. "We did witness the first flight from the spaceport, and they did successfully launch out of the spaceport, but it was just unfortunate that the rocket did not reach its goal of attaining space."

Horan said the NMSU team, which is developing a "nanosatellite" for a U.S. Air Force-sponsored competition, gained confidence as well as knowledge from preparing duplicates of the satellite's subsystems for testing aboard the UP Aerospace rocket.

"We learned about the software we're using, we got the hardware and software integrated and talking to each other - we did things to move us forward," he said. "And we got to be a part of history."

The NMSU team must be ready to "turn over to our sponsors a working satellite" some time during the first quarter of 2007, Horan said. The NMSU satellite, which will carry a cosmic ray experiment and be equipped with an experimental robotic arm, will compete with 11 other university-designed nanosatellites for selection by the Air Force Research Laboratory for launching into orbit.

Horan said one of the lessons of the spaceport's first rocket launch is that spaceflight is a challenging and complex endeavor.

"Just because people have been launching rockets for over 50 years doesn't mean it's like starting your car and driving off," he said. "This is hard stuff to do."

Companies like UP Aerospace are pioneers in the emerging commercial spaceflight industry that aims to offer affordable space-launch capabilities.

"UP is an all-new company that's trying to do things that haven't been done before," Horan said. "When you're part of getting a new industry up and off the ground, these kinds of things are going to happen. Usually, from a learning point of view, you learn more when things go wrong than you do when they go perfectly."

This story was originally titled "Payload post-mortem: Rocket launch was a learning experience".

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Copyright © 2006, Brian Webb. All rights reserved.