Day 38 – Launch!!!!!!

In case you haven’t heard yet, we finally launched the rocket!!!  RENU 2 successfully launched on the morning of 13 December 2015 at 0734 UT.  I had a good feeling from the moment I woke up that morning that it was going to be the day.  A quick look at the space weather conditions from my room were very promising from the start.

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Aurora was active overhead all morning during the launch. A little bit of snow obscured many of the domes slightly, but the team at KHO worked hard all day to keep them clear. This image was taken by the ZWO Allsky Camera provided by KHO.

A light snow was falling that morning but the winds were fairly calm, so the drive up the mountain to the observatory was uneventful.  The larger concern was the snow moving through the region around Andenes.  Several cells of precipitation were forecast to move through that morning, each bringing gusts of wind that pushed out of limits.

EISCAT
The EISCAT radar kept us informed in real-time about the conditions in the ionosphere. We were looking for signatures of electron heating and the signals from EISCAT were clear that the ionosphere was indeed heating up overhead. (Photo from the EISCAT website)

As soon as the launch window opened we began to see the ideal aurora conditions.  Arcs of aurora that have strong signatures in the red wavelength began moving north over our heads.  These are what we call poleward moving auroral forms, or PMAFs.  They are an indicator of what is called cusp aurora.

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Marc Lessard, the Primary Investigator of RENU 2 (and my boss), has the final call to launch. He can’t believe how ideal the conditions were that morning.  He made the call just minutes before the next snow squall moved in.

In an ideal case, the cusp will launch several of these PMAFs over head in a very predictable manner.  We watched an arc go over head and Marc made the call to bring the count down to T – 15 minutes and hold (15 minutes away from launch).  We then watched another PMAF go overhead and the count was brought down and held at T- 2 minutes.  After the third arc passed overhead, that was all we needed to see.

R2-Launch1
3… 2… 1… FIRE!!! In this image take just after ignition you can see the payload breaking through the top of the styrofoam box that housed the rocket on the pad.

After the experience with CAPER just a few weeks prior, no one celebrated quite yet.  We all waited as word came over the radio about each stage of the rocket’s flight.  1st stage separation successful, then 2nd stage successful.

R2-Launch7
RENU 2 after it has left the rail. The bursts coming out the side of the rocket are the “spin-up” motors that put the rocket into a stabilizing spin at several rotations per second.

After the 3rd stage a small deviation was detected and our stomachs dropped… The rocket was veering off several hundred kilometers to the east.  The fourth and final stage kicked it a little further off to the east.

RENU-2_flight_path
Image showing the ideal flight path of the rocket (blue dotted line) and the actual tracked path (red line).

The good news it that the path was well within the safety margins NASA had designed into the mission, so no people or other living things were in danger.  The other good news is that the rocket actually ended up hitting a brighter part of the arc than what we saw overhead!

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All sky camera data from the middle of the rocket flight. The image on the top left shows the location of the red aurora relative to the map of Svalbard. The black line is where the rocket was supposed to go, and the darker red part (i.e. brighter aurora) just to the right of the track is where we actually hit. Score! (Image from University of Oslo)

Even after we realized that the rocket hit a good target, the celebrations were limited.  The next question we had to know was, “Did the instruments work?”  Everyone got busy immediately checking the state of their instruments, looking to see if good data came in.  All initial indications were that each instrument worked like it was supposed to, a HUGE relief.  Finally it was time to take a deep breath and smile a little bit.

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The team at KHO looking for the rocket in the sky. Pictured left to right: Meghan Harrington, Bruce Fritz, Mikko Syrjasuo, Noora Partamies, Pal Gunnar, Marc Lessard

The excitement continued to build throughout the rest of the day and we celebrated that night.  This rocket campaign is such a huge collaboration of effort from literally hundreds of people and we can’t thank everyone enough for their tireless dedication through all the long hours and early mornings.  It took a combined effort from all over the world to make this mission a success and we are all extremely grateful.

Until next time…

…well I hope there’s a next rocket, I LOVE THIS JOB!!!!

Day 26 – Launch Window Day 5

Typically I have updated the blog with reference to the number of days I’ve been traveling.  Now that we’re in the launch window itself I think it makes sense to talk in terms of those days too, since they are the important ones for us now, so I’ll list both

The first few days on site have been very exciting, to say the least.  I’m a bit behind in keeping this current, so I’ll provide a little recap here to catch up.

Day 1 of the window was uneventful, but very productive.  There are two rockets scheduled to launch during this campaign.  Our rocket, RENU 2, was not ready for launch quite yet due to some final testing by the NASA folks at the launch site.  This turned out to be OK since we had to iron out a bunch of details like communications and data monitoring.  CAPER, the other rocket mission, was ready to go but could never elevate into launch position due to high winds on the ground.

WindRocketDiagram
NASA carefully calculates the exact angle (a) to elevate the rocket during launch to hit our desired target. High winds can catch the tail fins of the rocket just after launch (b) and push the trajectory off course.

High winds at Andøya kept us down again on Days 2 and 3 (30-40 mph, mostly sustained).  The good news on Day 2 was that we finished testing so RENU 2 would be ready to go whenever the weather decided to cooperate.  The good news for Day 3 was that the solar wind conditions picked up and really started to look interesting.  We were very optimistic heading into Day 4 based on solar activity and forecasts.

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RENU 2 and CAPER both elevated and ready to go on the launch pad at Andoya Space Center in Norway (Photo credit: NASA)

Day 4 has so far been the most exciting yet disappointing day all at the same time.  As we had hoped, the space weather conditions looked fantastic almost right away in the morning.  After a short hour delay while some fishing boats crossed the zone in front of the launch facility, the CAPER team was ready to go.  They had been first in line to launch for the first few days while the moon is still up and bright, and the light is slightly prohibitive for our instrumentation.  The CAPER team saw what looked like great conditions for their science and hit go!

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CAPER shortly after takeoff.  RENU 2 waits silently in the foreground.  While on the ground both rockets are enclosed in styrofoam and hot air is pumped in to keep the motors from freezing.  (Photo credit: NASA)

Sadly the excitement was short lived.  An anomaly occurred in the third stage of the rocket shortly after takeoff.  The rocket only made it a little over 10 miles down range before spiraling out of control.  NASA has confirmed that the payload went down in a clear area with nothing or no one in danger.  The root cause of the issue still has not been determined, however.  So while conditions continued to look great for a while yesterday, we could not launch while we waited for clearance from NASA.

The silver lining to the issue experienced by CAPER is that it appears to be isolated to the third stage of the rocket.  Fortunately for us, the primary difference between the RENU 2 and CAPER rockets happens to be the third stage motor (i.e. RENU 2 uses a different motor than CAPER).   We will use the lessons can be learned from CAPER and right now NASA engineers are quadruple-checking every detail to make sure the motors are assembled correctly.  Right now the team is optimistic that we will have no issues similar to CAPER, in particular because of the different third stage.

So now, today, again we wait for the go-ahead from NASA.  Solar wind conditions look OK, but maybe not exactly ideal.  Some of the science ground support has been called off since we are still waiting for clearance from NASA, so we can’t be sure what conditions would look like.  For now that is all irrelevant, however.  Our first priority is just ensuring that we will have a successful launch, whenever that time comes.

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.

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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.

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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 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…