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.

ZWO_Allsky_T+6
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.

DSC00515
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!

lyr_T+7
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.

DSC00545
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.

ReadyToLaunch.png
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!

CAPERlaunch.png
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 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…

RENU 2 Integration

The past month and a half has been spent getting all of our instruments strapped to the rocket payload and tested for flight, and it looks like we’re almost ready to go.  Strapping in the instruments and testing them turned out to be a much more complicated process than I originally guessed.  Apparently rocket science isn’t easy! Who knew?

Fore section of the RENU 2 payload
The front of the payload has particle detectors (ions, electrons and neutral particles), magnetometers, and light monitors (in visible and UV wavelengths).

For most of the first two weeks the rocket looked like this.  It’s a mess of wires with the instruments all exposed.  Each team member takes their turn installing various instruments needed for the science mission.  In this orientation you can see the front end of the rocket’s main payload.  On the fore section of the main payload we have instruments to measure ions, electrons, neutral particles, light at multiple wavelengths, and the magnetic field.

Aft section of the RENU 2 main payload
The aft section of the main payload contains the imager and another neutral particle detector.

The back end of the main payload contains the fruit of most of my own labor, the imager.  In the image above a bag covers the imager to keep out dust and debris.  There’s also a sub-payload that separates from the main payload during flight (not pictured here) and that contains another electron instrument as well as an electric field instrument.

Integration could get stressful and busy at times. Even seemingly small things like a broken wire could sometimes turn into a crisis.
Integration could get stressful and busy at times. Even seemingly small things like a broken wire could sometimes turn into a crisis.

I was only present for the first two weeks while we were attaching the instruments and making sure everything was connected properly electrically.  This stretch of integration isn’t usually the most stressful part of integration but still some issues cropped up.  We had to deal with things ranging from a broken wire to misaligned hole patterns, which may sound minor but everything is under a deadline and that raises the stress level a bit.  Fortunately the NASA team down at Wallops is awesome, they saved our bacon more than once!

Separate components of the payload eventually begin to come together and look like a rocket.
Separate components of the payload eventually begin to come together and look like a rocket. (Photo taken by Kristoff Paulson)

Once all the instruments are in place the skin of the payload can start to go on.  This is when it really starts to take shape and look like a rocket.  I wasn’t here for this portion of integration sadly, but I got to live vicariously through Kristoff and Brent, who helped monitor the UNH instruments.  They updated us daily on the progress and status of the testing.

RENU 2 payload with the nosecone attached and ready for testing.
RENU 2 payload with the nosecone attached and ready for testing. (Photo by Steve Powell)

The whole payload goes through a litany of tests, most important of which is the vibration testing.  Basically the payload gets put through a simulation of launch conditions to see if things will survive all the rumbling of a small explosion directly beneath it and still operate as expected.

All of the testing has gone fairly well up to this point.  There were plenty of snags along the way and still a thing or two we have to work out, but it looks like the mission is on track to launch this winter.  I’ll be updating live from Norway both leading up to and during launch (the window opens on 27 November), so be sure to check back for updates!

Summer Update

This has been a really busy, hectic summer, especially in the last month or so. Everyone in our lab at UNH has worked like crazy to get all of our instruments ready for the rocket launch coming up this fall.  A big thanks goes out to everyone that helped us make the deadline, it literally took a small army to pull it off.

This is pretty much everything that we put together for this summer.  It may be a bit underwhelming but I guarantee a TON of work went into these bits of hardware.
This is pretty much everything that we put together for this summer. The view in this picture may be a bit underwhelming but I guarantee a TON of work went into these bits of hardware.  They’ll look super cool once they get strapped to the rocket!

I’ll have more details about the rocket mission itself (called RENU 2) as we get closer to the launch in November. For now I just want to share a little update about what I’ve been up to this summer.

It felt like the imager spent most of the summer in pieces like this but by the end it all came together.
It felt like the imager spent most of the summer in pieces like this but by the end of the summer it all came together.

Most of my work has been focused on getting the imager ready.  The work I did included everything from designing mechanical parts for the machine shop to create to soldering tiny electronic components under a microscope.  In very simplistic terms, the imager is basically a super fancy digital camera. Hopefully the picture above shows that in reality the imager is a little more complicated than a GoPro. This is just one of five instruments UNH is responsible for providing.

One of our electron instruments, the EPLAS, had to be tested in a vacuum chamber to make sure it worked properly.  Here Ian (a recent UNH grad) is explaining to another student how the EPLAS (the little can in the center) works in the chamber.
One of our electron instruments, the EPLAS, had to be tested in a vacuum chamber to make sure it worked properly. Here, Ian (a recent UNH grad) is explaining to another student how the EPLAS (the little can in the center) works in the chamber.

In addition to the imager, we have an instrument to measure UV light, a magnetometer, and two different types of electron instruments (one for high energy electrons and one for low energy). I should have plenty more pictures of the imager and the rest of the instruments to share later.  After building and testing all the instruments, we packed everything up very carefully so I could drive it all down to NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on the east side of Chesapeake Bay.

NASA Wallops Flight Facility is where we first integrate our instruments onto the rocket itself.  It's located way down the DelMar peninsula near the southern tip of Assateague Island (known for their wild horses, hence the cover photo).
NASA Wallops Flight Facility is where we first integrate our instruments onto the rocket itself. It’s located way down the DelMarVa peninsula near the southern tip of Assateague Island (known for their wild horses, hence the cover photo).

I survived the Jersey Turnpike and am now in Chincoteague, VA waiting to get started in the morning.  The ten hour drive down the coast is just the first leg of my next nerdventure. I’ll be here for a week and a half or so making sure everything gets properly attached to the rocket payload and turns on as planned. I hope to post some more pictures of integration as things go along, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you’d like to see some information about past rocket launches our lab has been a part of feel free to peruse the MIRL website.