Research rocket launches, close to a decade of effort by a large research team

(UAF photo by JR Ancheta)

Salcha On Monday around 4:40 in the morning, a sounding rocket launched into the atmosphere after close to a decade of work leading up to the launch.

“A lot of work goes into it, it’s been nine years that I’ve been working on this, it’s a lot of effort and hard work from a big team to make this happen,” said Justin Carstens, a research scientist at Virginia Tech.
A team from Virginia Tech, the University of Colorado, along with NASA engineers have been working on this project from building the rocket to determining what needs to work to get the data they need to look at the chemical effects of the aurora.

Scott Bailey, professor of electrical engineering and Director for Center for Space Science and Engineering at Virginia Tech, was the principal investigator for the project. Researchers are trying to find out how much nitric oxide is produced by the aurora and where does it settle in the atmosphere.

Before they can start analyzing the data, the launch had to be successful in both taking off and collecting the data.

"Everything has to come together, and it only takes one element to make it not work," said Bailey.

There was a launch window from January 26, 2020 to February 8, 2020 for the mission, PolarNOX. On Sunday, January 26, the rocket was prepared to launch and as people watched outside listening to the countdown, it was not able to launch due to a hang fire.
On Monday, the researchers came back to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Poker Flat Research Range to attempt to launch the rocket again. This time, it was successful.

According to a press release from UAF, the rocket arced to a high point of 160 miles over northern Alaska and Bailey got the science results he was looking for.

One of the parts Bailey stressed the most was what a large team it took to get the rocket to this point from high school students to experts in the field.

Emerson Dove, a high school senior, worked with Dr. Bailey on the project over the summer, with the pressure sensor being his focus.
“What that does is obviously measures pressure within the rocket. So we have to pump down the rocket beforehand, before it even launches, to about the atmospheric pressure of the altitude we’re going to, so that when we open the doors to actually observe, the air doesn’t all rush out and mess with all our mechanical everything,” said Dove. “So, it’s actually very mission essential that we have the pressure equalized in our compartment, so that was a pretty cool project to actually work on something that if it fails, the project might fail.”

Sowmya M., an intern at Virginia Tech, said she worked with Dr. Bailey throughout the semester and they worked on two projects, one of which was the rocket. “The work was on like its peak when I came here, so I got to work on a bunch of stuff, along with the pressure sensor that Emerson was working on, running detector tests and things like that, so thankfully I got to be a part of all of it,” said Sowmya.

Justin Yonker, a visiting assistant professor at Hollins University, said he and his student were invited to come up for the launch and was looking forward to learning about the atmosphere in its quiet state. “We want to see exactly how far down it’s moved since the last major event, and hopefully answer some of these bigger science questions,” said Yonker.

“There’s just a large number of engineers and scientists who all have to work together to make this happen and it only takes one element to not work and this whole thing doesn’t work. That is why you have to really congratulate and thank all the engineers who come together and make this happen, it’s a wonderful team, it’s an amazing accomplishment to pull this off,” said Bailey.

The team is already thinking of more questions they want to conduct future research on.

The full launch video can be viewed at the Poker Flat Research Range YouTube page.

Copyright 2020 KTVF. All rights reserved.