Day 23 – Launch Window Day 1

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.

PolarTravelView
A view of Earth from over the North Pole helps illustrate exactly where Svalbard located. At a latitude of 78° N, we are 711 miles away from the Geographic North Pole, which is less than the distance from Chicago to New York City (790 miles).

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.

LongyearbyenView
The mountains that line the valley around Longyearbyen are beautiful in the daylight. With the right lighting you can get an idea of what they must look like.
LongyearbyenDowntown
Longyearbyen has a fairly active downtown with shops and restaurants. Cruise ships will stop here in the summer and dump thousands of tourists into the town, but things are a little bit quieter this time of year.
UNIS
The University Center in Svalbard, or UNIS, is one of the major centers in Longyearbyen. Researchers here study biology, ecology, and geology of the Arctic in addition to the space research that our crew is interested in. Students may visit and take courses in any of these subjects as well.

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.

KHOcontrol
The Svalbard science team sits in the control room at KHO, patiently waiting for acceptable conditions to launch into. We have cameras, magnetometers, and radars all working in unison to monitor the local space environment.

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.

20151128-GOESxray

X-Ray images of the sun show several active regions that could provide some good aurora over the next few days.

Until next time…

Day 21 – On the Rail

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.

R2-NoseconeOn
A crowd watches on as Clay, one of the NASA technicians carefully guides the nosecone on and into place. Clearance is very tight and the instruments are virtually irreplaceable at this point, so no slips can be afforded.

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.

R2-RemoveCovers
Each experiment is covered up in some form or fashion to protect it while on the ground. Before sealing the experiments inside the payload, we must be certain that all covers are removed. A list of covers is carefully tracked and maintained by the mission manager to ensure nothing is forgotten. I would hate to fly a camera with the lens cap still on!

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.

R2-SubWind
The COWBOY instrument comprises most of the sub payload. It uses long wire booms to measure the field that are carefully wound up around the payload body during flight. Steve Powell, Cornell University, is seen here with the NASA mission manager meticulously preparing his instrument for the rocket.

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.

R2-SubMate
Moving the sub payload back into place again required the use of a crane. The COWBOY mates to the bottom of the payload structure and will separate partway into the flight.

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.

R2-PayloadTransport
The payload gets wrapped up in plastic to protect it from the elements during transport.

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.

R2-OnTheRail
This is the payload’s final resting place prior to launch. Most of the rocket motors are protected by a Styrofoam housing, seen here in the background, to keep them warm. The building will literally slide back out of the way and the metal structure will elevate the rocket to the proper angle each day, waiting for the scientists to give the call for launch.

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.

Until next time…

Day 17 – How to Talk to Rockets

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.

traj_detail
The rocket travels really high and really far in a very short amount of time. From end to end the whole flight lasts less than 15 minutes. The maximum height, or apogee, of the mission is over 300 miles in altitude, higher than even the International Space Station orbits.

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.

TMantenna2
A difficulty of using a large antenna in such a harsh climate is keeping the surface free of debris. Someone has to clean off the dish every day with a squeegee to remove any ice or snow that could interfere with the signal.

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.

PLantenna
The main payload and sub-payload are both covered with antennas wrapped around the exterior of the body. They are protected by the covers you see circled here.

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).

Houston do you copy?
A trailer next to the antenna controls the system and processes the data feed in real time. NASA basically takes a good chunk of what you see in mission control movie scenes and crams it into the back of a pop-out camper. (Bottom image from www.nasa.gov)

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.

ScienceTrailer
Part of the science experiment team sits in a separate trailer to track the health of their instruments both prior to and during the launch. During the launch window this trailer will be full of anxious engineers waiting for the call to launch.

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.

Until next time…

Day 15 – Payload Assembly

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.

RENU 2 Payload in pieces
All the payload components are lined up and ready to put together once we verify that everything is working properly. The nose cone is sitting next to the main payload and will cover the forward portion of the payload.

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.

Andoya mountains covered in snow
A little bit of snow hit Andenes last night. When we woke up this morning the mountains were covered with a layer of snow. This is a view of my back yard while at the space center.

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.

Bleik, Norway
Bleik is a tiny seaside village, just a few miles south of the launch facility. It’s protected from the weather and the launch facility by the mountains that surround it.

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.

Andenes, Norway
This is a view of Andenes, the town I flew into that’s only a couple minutes northeast of the Andoya Space Center. It’s a quiet town, especially this time of year, when residents barely see the light of day.

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.

Andenes lighthouse
With a good zoom lens I could see the lighthouse that is crucial this time of year. There are tons of fishing boats that keep the town in business throughout the year.

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.

Sunset over Andoya
I made it to the top of the mountain range I set out to climb. It made for a nice lunch hour while I had a break from work.

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.

Until next time…

Day 10 – Paris of the North

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).

View of the area around Andenes from the plane just after takeoff.  The day was pretty gloomy and overcast, but the mountains were spectacular when we got brief glimpses through the clouds.
View of the area around Andenes from the plane just after takeoff. The day was pretty gloomy and overcast, but the mountains were spectacular when we got brief glimpses through the clouds.

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.

Most of the city of Tromsø is situated on an island in a fjord set back several miles from the open ocean.  We didn’t have enough daylight to hike to the top of the ridge but we got up to a break in the trees to get most of the island in one shot.
Most of the city of Tromsø is situated on an island in a fjord set back several miles from the open ocean. We didn’t have enough daylight to hike to the top of the ridge but we got up to a break in the trees to get most of the island in one shot.

We hiked back down to the coast and across the bridge into the city.

The nickname “Paris of the North” dates back to the 19th century for reasons that are unclear, but apparently people still take the name seriously.  There were padlocks all along on the bridge fences just like in Paris, albeit much fewer in number.
The nickname “Paris of the North” dates back to the 19th century for reasons that are unclear, but apparently people still take the name seriously. There were padlocks all along on the bridge fences just like in Paris, albeit much fewer in number.

The city is beautiful, even on gray days like while we were there.

The view of the bay in front of Tromsø is a view I don’t think I would ever get tired of.
The view of the bay in front of Tromsø is a view I don’t think I would ever get tired of.

One of the most iconic sights in Tromsø is the Arctic Cathedral, a modern church built in the 1960s.

The architecture of the Arctic Cathedral makes it look almost like an iceberg on land.
The architecture of the Arctic Cathedral makes it look almost like an iceberg on land.

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 Arctic Cathedral gets lit up at night and is visible from many places in the city.
The Arctic Cathedral gets lit up at night and is visible from many places in the city.

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.

Until next time…

Day 7 – Nose to the Grindstone

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.

By the end of the second full day, the experiment teams had all of the instruments mounted back on the payload structure.  This is how the payload looked when I left it behind in September during integration.
By the end of the second full day, the experiment teams had all of the instruments mounted back on the payload structure. This is how the payload looked when I left it behind in September during integration.

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.

With the full payload lines up, you can see the imager sticking out the bottom of the payload and the rest of the instruments at the top.  The sections in between contain the power, attitude control, and telemetry systems.
With the full payload lined up, you can see the imager sticking out the bottom of the payload and the rest of the instruments at the top. The sections in between contain the power, attitude control, and telemetry systems.

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.

This photo was taken while out for lunch on my first full day in Andenes, approximately noon local time.  It felt more like sunset...
This photo was taken while out for lunch on my first full day in Andenes, approximately noon local time. It felt more like sunset…

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.

#TauridMeteorShower
There wasn’t much structure in the aurora at the time, but one of my favorite shots from the first night was focused on the big dipper when a meteor streaked through the frame. What a lucky shot!

Until next time…

Day 5 – Back to Work

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.

There are three Viking ships over a thousand years old that were discovered in Norway, two of which are remarkably well preserved.  They should have been full of gold and weapons but had been looted shortly after burial because, you know, they’re Vikings…
There are three Viking ships over a thousand years old that were discovered in Norway, two of which are remarkably well preserved. They should have been full of gold and weapons but had been looted shortly after burial because, you know, they’re Vikings…

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.

Not only did Roald Amundsen lead the first team to the South Pole (remember the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is jointly named after him), he also was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage above Canada and the first to fly to the North Pole. (Photo from Wikipedia)
Not only did Roald Amundsen lead the first team to the South Pole (remember the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is jointly named after him), he also was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage above Canada and the first to fly to the North Pole. (Photo from Wikipedia)

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.

They literally built the Fram Museum around the ship.  They even let us onto the ship to explore above and below deck.
They literally built the Fram Museum around the ship. They even let us onto the ship to explore above and below deck.

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.

This map illustrates the first two legs of my travel that took me from Boston to Oslo and up to Andenes.  (via Google Maps)
This map illustrates the first two legs of my travel that took me from Boston to Oslo and up to Andenes. (via Google Maps)

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.

I have a nice view out my window of the front sign.  The center is situated on the few acres of land between the mountains and the ocean.
I have a nice view out my window of the front sign. The center is situated on the few acres of land between the mountains and the ocean.

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.

I was busy unpacking when someone stepped into the building and just casually mentioned the aurora happening outside.  I tried to play it cool for like 5 seconds, then grabbed my camera and ran outside.  The clouds set in shortly after so I didn’t see much more, but this was an exciting start less than 5 hours after getting here!
I was busy unpacking when someone stepped into the building and just casually mentioned the aurora happening outside. I tried to play it cool for like 5 seconds, then grabbed my camera and ran outside. The clouds set in shortly after so I didn’t see much more, but this was an exciting start less than 5 hours after getting here!

We should hopefully get very busy very soon, so I’ll try to keep you as updated as I can with new developments.

Until next time…