We arrived safely a few days ago in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on the island of Svalbard. Where are is that exactly? The short answer is we are way up north. More specifically, we are about 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle. With a permanent population of around 2,000 people, Longyearbyen is the northernmost substantial settlement in the world.
The town of Svalbard is located in a glacier-fed river valley that empties into a fjord. The town was established by coal miners over a hundred years ago, and the mines are still active today.
We spent the first couple days in town at UNIS meeting with our hosts and finalizing plans for during the launch window. During the window, however, we are up on the mountain ridge at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO) to monitor conditions in real time with local access to data. We monitor the conditions with ground based and space based measurements.
It has been 4 days since I’ve seen the sun, though I hear stories that it’s still up somewhere. Weather conditions have been poor so far, both on the surface and up in space. There is little evidence that the aurora we want to see has been present since it’s been cloudy for the past couple days, but winds at the launch site have made a launch unlikely anyway. Now we just have to sit and wait for the sun to send some activity our way and hope the winds cooperate at the launch site.
X-Ray images of the sun show several active regions that could provide some good aurora over the next few days.
We are getting very close to the moment of truth. The last few days in Andenes have been very busy as usual getting everything put together and ready for launch.
The main payload is assembled, tested, and ready to go. Putting the nosecone over the payload is one of the last steps in assembly and mostly signals the end of the experimenter’s hands-on involvement.
With the main payload buttoned up and ready to go, the attention turns to the sub payload, which primarily consists of an instrument to measure the electric field in the ionosphere.
The rocket payload spins during flight to maintain stability, and the COWBOY instrument uses the rotational energy to deploy the wire booms.
(Video by NASA/ courtesy Steven Powell, Cornell University)
Small grooves along the side of the turkey pot (yes, seriously, a turkey pot) keep the wires separated until deployment, otherwise the instrument would end up a tangled mess. With booms wound, the skin goes and on and the sub payload is ready to join the fun.
Once all the components of the payload are finally in place, it must be transported down to the rail to get attached to the rocket motors.
NASA teams have been busy behind the scenes preparing the launch pad and the rocket motors while we worked to get the payload ready. Once we were done, all that was needed was to connect a few bolts and the rocket is pretty much good to go.
In the days prior to the launch window opening, there are still a few last minute checks to be done. The launch team goes through a practice countdown to ensure that telemetry systems are working and electrical systems respond like they should.
I only got a short glimpse of the rocket in its final configuration before heading to the airport. I hopped on plane for Longyearbyen, Svalbard yesterday, which is where I’ll stay during the launch window.
One of the challenges of strapping anything to a rocket and launching it into space is communicating with whatever it is you launch. You have to talk to the rocket in real time because payloads like ours don’t usually survive the impact after launch. You can’t just go pull out the memory card and get your data that way.
The rocket travels way too far for one antenna to reliably track the entire flight. It takes a network of antennas to follow the whole flight because the rocket can cover close to 1,000 miles on the ground. The closest antenna will track the first portion of the flight and hand off to another antenna further along the flight path.
Large antennas are required to keep track of something that gets as far away as the rocket will. GPS tracking helps but it takes an extremely precise system to track the payload from start to finish.
The stream of data that we receive from the rocket is called telemetry and tells us everything about the payload from the science experiment measurements to the health of the payload itself (battery power, alignment, etc).
It takes an entire team of NASA technicians and engineers to run the telemetry system. A large portion of the launch preparation is getting telemetry established and functioning properly. All powered tests of the payload are run through telemetry to practice using the system and to demonstrate that it works properly.
The science teams have their own part to play in the telemetry process as well. We monitor the health of the science instruments prior to launch. We have to give the NASA folks the thumbs up that everything is working as it should before the final countdown begins. From that point it’s pretty much up to timed systems to run the experiments on auto-pilot.
The clip above is an example of what it looks like to ride on a sounding rocket into space. The rocket in this clip only goes about half as high as RENU 2 will and actually has a recoverable landing. Our payload will not survive impact. More on our mission coming soon.
This week has been busy preparing the range for launch and getting the payload ready to attach to the rocket motors. The work for the experimenters on the payload has been slow but the NASA crew is working like crazy to get all the other bits and pieces in place.
The payload is almost ready to put together into one piece. Before we put it all together, we do a launch simulation to make sure everything turns on like it’s supposed to. This is called a sequence test, because it involves turning everything on in the proper order as it should both before and after the launch. Before launch certain instruments and systems are tested one last time. After launch, all the experiments come on while the rest of the payload keeps working.
In the small amount of downtime we do have, I took an opportunity to enjoy the last few hours of sunlight I will likely see for a few weeks. I walked outside, looked up and thought I might get a pretty good view from the top of the mountains behind the space center, so a couple of us decided to hike to the top during our lunch break.
We were right, the views from the top of the mountains were impressive. There was just enough of a break in the clouds to get some bright light, even though we never got a direct shot of the sun itself. The sun never gets high enough in the sky to peek over the mountains further south of us.
The mountain range we climbed is high and narrow, so we were able to see the coast in all directions pretty easily. To the south was Bleik, the next town down the road. To the north is Andenes, the largest town on the island. West of us is the space center with the rocket range. East is a little bit of the town but mostly empty coastline.
Days keep getting shorter, we lose around 10 minutes of daylight each day. This nice sunset photograph was taken just before 1 PM local time.
We keep making progress on the rocket so it’s time for me to get back to work. I’ll share some more about the rocket and what we’re doing here in the next post.
The pre-launch assembly has been going well enough to this point that we got an unexpected day off of work. With the surprise 2-day weekend, I decided to hop on a flight with a friend and head to Tromsø for the weekend, considered the northernmost city in the world of any substantial size (50,000+ people).
The first thing we did was catch a cab to the edge of the city and hiked up the ridge to get a better aerial view.
We hiked back down to the coast and across the bridge into the city.
The city is beautiful, even on gray days like while we were there.
One of the most iconic sights in Tromsø is the Arctic Cathedral, a modern church built in the 1960s.
As the sun started to set, we hit one of the indoor attractions, a polar wildlife center where we learned about the local wildlife and watched the trainers feed the seals. Some of the best outdoor views were after the sun went down as well.
The main tourist attraction in the winter is the northern lights, which we didn’t get a chance to see because of the weather, but we weren’t disappointed since we’ll have plenty of opportunity for viewing the aurora the rest of the trip.
Sunday was a quick flight back to the range to get ready for a busy work week coming up. There is still a lot of work to do to get ready for the launch window, so the fun stuff may be over for a while but I’ll update when something is worth sharing.
Once we got down to business, things started to move along pretty quickly. The NASA folks have put in some long hours up to this point, but the rocket is coming together nicely.
When I arrived at the integration facility the whole payload structure was in pieces. By the end of my second full day, the whole thing was ready to bolt together into one structure as it will fly.
Everyone is working hard, but they do let us out occasionally, fortunately. The nearby town of Andenes has a few restaurants so we go out for meals to get away from the facility for a little bit.
The days just keep getting shorter. My first day here we had five hours of “sunlight.” A week later there will be less than four hours. By the end of the month this whole area will be in full 24 hour darkness. This really cuts down on the nature sightseeing opportunities, but that is just fine with me because the real scenery comes out at night.
I had one more day to spend in Oslo so I decided to explore a bit more of the regional history. The first stop was the Viking Ship museum.
Next was a much-longer-than-anticipated stop at the Fram Museum which is dedicated to the history of polar exploration. Most interesting was that I learned more about how incredible Roald Amundsen was.
The museum is named for the Fram because it was originally built around a ship with the same name. The ship was designed and built to explore the North Pole and was first used by a couple other Norwegian explorers. The ship was later captained by Amundsen on his journey to the South Pole.
After three hours reading about polar exploration I was burned out on museums. I wandered through the city a bit more and eventually headed to my hotel by the airport before my flight the next morning.
Day 5 was nothing but a travel day. We hopped a puddle jumper and flew up to Andenes. Where exactly is Andenes? It’s way up on the northern coast of Norway, just north of the Arctic Circle.
The Andoya Space Center is right next to the airport, so within minutes of landing at the airport we were at the facility to check into our lodging and get to work. The first job is unpacking all the equipment to prepare to reassemble the rocket. The NASA team is currently working hard to get caught up due to a late shipment, so right now I’m mostly waiting my turn to get on the payload and install our instruments. While unpacking, I got a pleasant surprise my first night here.
We should hopefully get very busy very soon, so I’ll try to keep you as updated as I can with new developments.