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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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 36 – Launch Window Day 15

It’s been a really exciting past few days, we have been VERY close to launching this rocket.  Science conditions were almost ideal yesterday but surface winds at Andøya foiled our attempt once again.  Weather is finally starting to cooperate a little bit so we have been able to go through a more typical routine.

The experiment teams are in place early each day and spend the launch window monitoring their instruments throughout the launch window. (Photo: Brent Sadler)

The launch team at Andøya is on station every day by 3:00 AM local time to start getting the rocket ready.  They perform diagnostic checks for about three hours prior to the launch window opening for the day.

Umbilical connectors provide power, nitrogen purge, and other diagnostic connections to the payload while on the rail. The connections are cut or broken off at the time of launch and the bungee cords pull everything out of the way as the rocket flies by. Believe it or not, most of the umbilical system is actually re-used from previous launches — way to be eco-friendly NASA! (Photo: Brent Sadler)

Once ground checks are done, the rocket is ready to elevate into launch position.  At this point the official countdown holds at T – 45 minutes, or 45 minutes away from liftoff.  Before the rocket can go vertical, the winds need to cooperate.  Weather balloons are sent up every 30 minutes or so to measure wind profiles up to 10 miles above the ground.  If the winds are really strong (4o+ mph) the rocket won’t even come out of the building in order to protect the styrofoam box.

The styrofoam box is important for keeping the motors warm while waiting to launch. The box is light enough that it does not hinder the flight of the rocket, but that means it is susceptible to damage from strong winds. Here you can see the box shatter moments after CAPER (the other sounding rocket this winter) leaves the rail. (Photo: NASA)

If the winds are calm enough, the door opens, the building slides back on rails, and the launcher moves to the vertical position.  The launcher orientation is constantly adjusted as trajectory for the rocket flight is re-calculated every few minutes based on wind measurements.  If the wind speeds are too high in any given direction or vary too wildly from minute to minute we have to wait for conditions to improve.  If calm enough, the launch facility is evacuated of any non-essential personnel and the countdown continues, holding at T – 15 minutes.

RENU 2 on the rail
There has been a lot of excitement the past few days, mostly because it is the first time in a while the rocket has gone vertical with any chance to launch. (Photo: NASA)

At Andenes and here on Svalbard, the science teams begin monitoring solar wind conditions around 4:00 AM each morning.  It is important to watch the general trends of activity like any weather forecast.  The NASA satellite, ACE, orbits between the sun and earth and gives measurements of solar wind conditions that typically hit the earth between 45 minutes to an hour later.  With practice the team is able to predict when the aurora will begin to appear overhead.  Once things start to look interesting, the science team gives the go-ahead and the countdown continues.

The science team at Andøya sits in their control room monitoring a large amount information, all of which helps to determine science conditions overhead. The Svalbard science team sits together in a room watching the same conditons but without the fancy large screens and countdown clock. (Photo: Brent Sadler)

Often the count will hold at T – 2 minutes while the science team makes its final determination.  Yesterday we got all the way down to T- 2 minutes and held for nearly 30 minutes.  As we began to get close to the 2 minute mark, winds began to vary too dramatically, even though the aurora overhead was just about ideal.  While waiting for the winds to behave we literally ran out of time in the launch window and we had to call it a day.

We only have about a week left in the window with a chance to launch so the whole team is starting to get a bit antsy.  We keep our fingers crossed for the weather conditions to come together one of these mornings.  I really hope the next post I share will have details about a successful launch!

Until next time…


Day 30 – Launch Window Day 9

Days 7 and 8 of the launch window were lost due to gale force winds at the launch site.  Fortunately things were pretty quiet overhead in the ionosphere, as predicted, so we likely would not have launched anyway.

Most days visibility is almost zero on top of the mountains outside Longyearbyen. (Photo: Noora Partemies)

Conditions are starting to pick up in the solar wind but sadly another day has been lost.  This morning during the initial daily checks a pressure regulator in the attitude control system failed and had to be replaced.  It requires enough work to take the rocket down and replace the part that we completely lost the day and tomorrow may be in doubt as well.

The ground conditions at Svalbard have been much better than at the launch site.  The break from the wind has been nice since it had been pretty nasty on top of the mountain when we first arrived (the video above is one of the better looking days).  Luckily for us we have a pretty sweet ride to the top.  We drive our four wheel drive van up about 2/3 up the side of the mountain to a coal mining outpost, then rendezvous with a familiar mode of transportation.

You may remember seeing a vehicle like this last year when I was at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Turns out these Hagglunds (a.k.a. belt-wagons) are useful vehicles at both poles!

The bad news about the mostly cloudy and windy weather we keep getting on Svalbard is that it really limits visibility.  Technically we could find the right conditions to launch without seeing the sky, but we all would feel much better if we could see what we were launching into!

View from atop the observatory during one of the rare moments with a break in the clouds. There are over a dozen different domes with different cameras set up to watch the skies here at KHO. The moon is in the upper right corner doing its best to ruin visibility for the cameras.

Once again we wait, hopefully we have some good news soon.

Until next time…

Day 27 – Launch Window Day 6

NASA officials gave us the thumbs up to proceed again today as normal, so we are good to go after the unfortunate scare caused by the CAPER launch. A combination of factors, like using a different motor than CAPER and review of our own assembly procedures gives us confidence that RENU 2 will not suffer a similar fate as the other mission this campaign.

Marc Laughing
The mood for the launch team was much lighter today after a couple stressful days dealing with the CAPER anomaly. Even the boss found time to laugh (who knows what was funny…)

Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate today.  Winds on the ground were not a problem, but weather balloons launched throughout the morning indicated shear winds in excess of 100 mph at roughly about 5 miles altitude.  It turned out to be no big deal, however, since the space weather conditions were not very cooperative either.

The sun rotates on average once every 27 days. It rotates left to right as viewed from Earth. Solar wind from two active regions (in the red circles) is currently on either side of Earth, leaving us in a quiet window. (Photo: GOES X-Ray Imager)

The Earth is in a short lull for solar wind conditions.  The solar wind is always blowing because the sun is really hot and hot gases expand.  The effect is the opposite of why you need to add air to your car tires in the winter when the temperatures drop.  Really active regions on the surface of the sun will produce short bursts like gusts of wind.

Plasma in the solar wind traces out a spiral pattern like water from a sprinkler. Since the solar wind takes a few days to reach Earth (green dot), active sources on the sun (yellow dot) may be almost out of sight by the time we feel the effects on Earth. This diagram is from a NOAA space weather forecast model that illustrates how dense regions of high speed plasma form a spiral after leaving the sun. (Photo: WSA-ENLIL, NOAA)

Typical gusts of solar wind take days to travel the 93 million miles to Earth.  Predicting exactly when they will hit is about as reliable as tracking a hurricane in the ocean (often close to correct, but not always spot on).  Larger events that come from Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and solar flares, like in the picture in the header, are a little more extreme but that is a subject for another day.  NASA’s SDO has been tracking solar activity for five years now, and has a good history of activity on the sun, including for the solar maximum that is currently winding down.

Tomorrow the weather at Andenes looks to be extremely windy so we are planning to take the day off since a launch is extremely unlikely.  Hopefully the weather will cooperate when we get into the next stream of solar wind.

Until next time…

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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…