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Sounding Rocket Science in the Arctic

We sent three suborbital sounding rockets right into the auroras above Alaska on the evening of March 1 local time from the Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks, Alaska.  

Sounding rockets are suborbital rockets that fly up in an arc and immediately come back down, with a total flight time around 20 minutes. 

Though these rockets don’t fly fast enough to get into orbit around Earth, they still give us valuable information about the sun, space, and even Earth itself. Sounding rockets’ low-cost access to space is also ideal for testing instruments for future satellite missions.

Sounding rockets fly above most of Earth’s atmosphere, allowing them to see certain types of light – like extreme ultraviolet and X-rays – that don’t make it all the way to the ground because they are absorbed by the atmosphere. These kinds of light give us a unique view of the sun and processes in space.

The sun seen in extreme ultraviolet light by the Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite.

Of these three rockets, two were part of the Neutral Jets in Auroral Arcs mission, collecting data on winds influenced by the electric fields related to auroras. Sounding rockets are the perfect vehicle for this type of study, since they can fly directly through auroras – which exist in a region of Earth’s upper atmosphere too high for scientific balloons, but too low for satellites.

The third rocket that launched on March 1 was part of the ISINGLASS mission (short for Ionospheric Structuring: In Situ and Ground-based Low Altitude Studies). ISINGLASS included two rockets designed to launch into two different types of auroras in order to collect detailed data on their structure, with the hope of better understanding the processes that create auroras. The initial ISINGLASS rocket launched a few weeks earlier, on Feb. 22, also from the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska.

Auroras are caused when charged particles trapped in Earth’s vast magnetic field are sent raining down into the atmosphere, usually triggered by events on the sun that propagate out into space. 

Team members at the range had to wait until conditions were just right until they could launch – including winds, weather, and science conditions. Since these rockets were studying aurora, that means they had to wait until the sky was lit up with the Northern Lights.

Regions near the North and South Pole are best for studying the aurora, because the shape of Earth’s magnetic field naturally funnels aurora-causing particles near the poles. 

But launching sensitive instruments near the Arctic Circle in the winter has its own unique challenges. For example, rockets have to be insulated with foam or blankets every time they’re taken outside – including while on the launch pad – because of the extremely low temperatures.

For more information on sounding rockets, visit www.nasa.gov/soundingrockets.

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Soaring through the skies! This view looks from the window of our F-18 support aircraft during a 2016 Orbital ATK air-launch of its Pegasus rocket. 

The CYGNSS mission, led by the University of Michigan, will use eight micro-satellite observatories to measure wind speeds over Earth’s oceans, increasing the ability of scientists to understand and predict hurricanes. 

CYGNSS launched at 8:37 a.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016 from our Kennedy Space Center in Florida. CYGNSS launched aboard an Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket, deployed from Orbital’s “Stargazer” L-1011 carrier aircraft.

Pegasus is a winged, three-stage solid propellant rocket that can launch a satellite into low Earth orbit. How does it work? Great question!

After takeoff, the aircraft (which looks like a commercial airplane..but with some special quirks) flies to about 39,000 feet over the ocean and releases the rocket. 

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Put to the Test: Orion Service Module

Blasted with sound, shaken for hours and pyro detonated, the Orion Service Module Completes Ground Tests at our Glenn Research Center

We recently completed a structural integrity evaluation on the test version of the Orion service module at our Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio. Designed to ensure the module can withstand launch atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the battery of tests was conducted in stages over a 16-month period.

The 13-ton European service module will power, propel and cool Orion, while supplying vital oxygen and water to its crew during future missions.

The Powerhouse: Space Launch System and Orion

Our Space Launch System is an advanced launch vehicle that will usher in a new era of human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. SLS, with its unparalleled power and capabilities, will launch missions to explore deep-space destinations aboard our Orion spacecraft.

What is Orion? Named after one of the largest constellations in the night sky and drawing from more than 50 years of spaceflight research and development, the Orion spacecraft will be the safest, most advanced spacecraft ever built. It will be flexible and capable enough to take astronauts to a variety of deep destinations, including Mars.

Welcome to the Buckeye State

In November 2015, the full-sized test version of the Orion service module arrived at Cleveland Hopkins Airport aboard an Antonov AN-124. After being unloaded from one of the world’s largest transport aircraft, the module was shipped more than 50 miles by truck to Plum Brook for testing.

Spread Your Wings

The first step of the service module’s ground test journey at Plum Brook’s Space Power Facility, saw one of its 24-foot solar array wings deployed to verify operation of the power system. The test confirmed the array extended and locked into place, and all of the wing mechanisms functioned properly.

Can You Hear SLS Now?

The SLS will produce a tremendous amount of noise as it launches and climbs through our atmosphere. In fact, we’re projecting the rocket could produce up to 180 decibels, which is louder than 20 jet engines operating at the same time.

While at the Reverberant Acoustic Test Facility, the service module was hit with more than 150 decibels and 20-10,000 hertz of sound pressure. Microphones were placed inside the test environment to confirm it matched the expected acoustic environment during launch.

After being blasted by sound, it was time to rock the service module, literally.

Shake Without the Bake 

Launching atop the most powerful rocket ever built – we’re talking more than eight million pounds of thrust – will subject Orion to stresses never before experienced in spaceflight.

To ensure the launch doesn’t damage any vital equipment, the engineering team utilized the world’s most powerful vibration table to perform nearly 100 different tests, ranging from 2.5 Hz to 100 Hz, on the module in the summer of 2016. 

Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated

The team then moved the Orion test article from the vibration table into the high bay for pyroshock tests, which simulated the shock the service module will experience as it separates from the SLS during launch.

Following the sound, vibration and separation tests, a second solar array wing deployment was conducted to ensure the wing continued to properly unfurl and function.

Headed South for the Summer

The ground test phase was another crucial step toward the eventual launch of Exploration Mission-1, as it validated extensive design prep and computer modeling, and verified the spacecraft met our safety and flight requirements.

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