Extreme Science: Launching Sounding Rockets from The Arctic
This winter, our scientists and engineers traveled to the world's northernmost civilian town to launch rockets equipped with cutting-edge scientific instruments.
This is the beginning of a 14-month-long campaign to study a particular region of Earth's magnetic field — which means launching near the poles. What's it like to launch a science rocket in these extreme conditions?
Our planet is protected by a natural magnetic field that deflects most of the particles that flow out from the Sun — the solar wind — away from our atmosphere. But near the north and south poles, two oddities in Earth's magnetic field funnel these solar particles directly into our atmosphere. These regions are the polar cusps, and it turns out they're the ideal spot for studying how our atmosphere interacts with space.
The scientists of the Grand Challenge Initiative — Cusp are using sounding rockets to do their research. Sounding rockets are suborbital rockets that launch to a few hundred miles in altitude, spending a few minutes in space before falling back to Earth. That means sounding rockets can carry sensitive instruments above our atmosphere to study the Sun, other stars and even distant galaxies.
They also fly directly through some of the most interesting regions of Earth's atmosphere, and that's what scientists are taking advantage of for their Grand Challenge experiments.
One of the ideal rocket ranges for cusp science is in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, off the coast of Norway and within the Arctic circle. Because of its far northward position, each morning Svalbard passes directly under Earth's magnetic cusp.
But launching in this extreme, remote environment puts another set of challenges on the mission teams. These launches need to happen during the winter, when Svalbard experiences 24/7 darkness because of Earth's axial tilt. The launch teams can go months without seeing the Sun.
Like for all rocket launches, the science teams have to wait for the right weather conditions to launch. Because they're studying upper atmospheric processes, some of these teams also have to wait for other science conditions, like active auroras. Auroras are created when charged particles collide with Earth’s atmosphere — often triggered by solar storms or changes in the solar wind — and they're related to many of the upper-atmospheric processes that scientists want to study near the magnetic cusp.
But even before launch, the extreme conditions make launching rockets a tricky business — it's so cold that the rockets must be encased in styrofoam before launch to protect them from the low temperatures and potential precipitation.
When all is finally ready, an alarm sounds throughout the town of Ny-Ålesund to alert residents to the impending launch. And then it's up, up and away! This photo shows the launch of the twin VISIONS-2 sounding rockets on Dec. 7, 2018 from Ny-Ålesund.
These rockets are designed to break up during flight — so after launch comes clean-up. The launch teams track where debris lands so that they can retrieve the pieces later.
The next launch of the Grand Challenge Initiative is AZURE, launching from Andøya Space Center in Norway in March 2019.
For even more about what it's like to launch science rockets in extreme conditions, check out one scientist's notes from the field: https://go.nasa.gov/2QzyjR4
For updates on the Grand Challenge Initiative and other sounding rocket flights, visit nasa.gov/soundingrockets or follow along with NASA Wallops and NASA heliophysics on Twitter and Facebook.
@NASA_Wallops | NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility | @NASASun | NASA Sun Science
When we return to the Moon, much will seem unchanged since humans first arrived in 1969. The flags placed by Apollo astronauts will be untouched by any breeze. The footprints left by man’s “small step” on its surface will still be visible across the Moon’s dusty landscape.
Our next generation of lunar explorers will require pioneering innovation alongside proven communications technologies. We’re developing groundbreaking technologies to help these astronauts fulfill their missions.
In space communications networks, lasers will supplement traditional radio communications, providing an advancement these explorers require. The technology, called optical communications, has been in development by our engineers over decades.
Optical communications, in infrared, has a higher frequency than radio, allowing more data to be encoded into each transmission. Optical communications systems also have reduced size, weight and power requirements. A smaller system leaves more room for science instruments; a weight reduction can mean a less expensive launch, and reduced power allows batteries to last longer.
On the path through this “Decade of Light,” where laser joins radio to enable mission success, we must test and demonstrate a number of optical communications innovations.
The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) mission will send data between ground stations in Hawaii and California through a spacecraft in an orbit stationary relative to Earth’s rotation. The demo will be an important first step in developing next-generation Earth-relay satellites that can support instruments generating too much data for today’s networks to handle.
The Integrated LCRD Low-Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier-Terminal will provide the International Space Station with a fully operational optical communications system. It will communicate data from the space station to the ground through LCRD. The mission applies technologies from previous optical communications missions for practical use in human spaceflight.
In deep space, we’re working to prove laser technologies with our Deep Space Optical Communications mission. A laser’s wavelength is smaller than radio, leaving less margin for error in pointing back at Earth from very, very far away. Additionally, as the time it takes for data to reach Earth increases, satellites need to point ahead to make sure the beam reaches the right spot at the right time. The Deep Space Optical Communications mission will ensure that our communications engineers can meet those challenges head-on.
An integral part of our journey back to the Moon will be our Orion spacecraft. It looks remarkably similar to the Apollo capsule, yet it hosts cutting-edge technologies. NASA’s Laser Enhanced Mission Communications Navigation and Operational Services (LEMNOS) will provide Orion with data rates as much as 100 times higher than current systems.
LEMNOS’s optical terminal, the Orion EM-2 Optical Communications System, will enable live, 4K ultra-high-definition video from the Moon. By comparison, early Apollo cameras filmed only 10 frames per second in grainy black-and-white. Optical communications will provide a “giant leap” in communications technology, joining radio for NASA’s return to the Moon and the journey beyond.
NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program office provides strategic oversight to optical communications research. At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the Exploration and Space Communications projects division is guiding a number of optical communications technologies from infancy to fruition. If you’re ever near Goddard, stop by our visitor center to check out our new optical communications exhibit. For more information, visit nasa.gov/SCaN and esc.gsfc.nasa.gov.
New Glovebox Facility Heads to Space for Biological Research
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency H-IIB rocket is zooming toward the International Space Station carrying NASA’s Life Sciences Glovebox, a state-of-the-art microgravity research facility.
JAXA’s HTV3, taken during Expedition 32
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and their partners around the world are excited to initiate new, high-value biological research in low-Earth orbit.
The Japanese rocket, hauling the research facility and other cargo via the HTV-7 transfer vehicle, successfully lifted off at 1:52 p.m. EDT from Tanegashima Space Center off the coast of Japan.
Its launch marks a first for hauling bulky equipment to space. Roughly the size of a large fish tank, the Life Sciences Glovebox comes in at 26 inches high, 35 inches wide and 24 inches deep, with 15 cubic feet of available workspace.
"The Life Sciences Glovebox is on its way to the space station to enable a host of biological and physiological studies, including new research into microgravity's long-term impact on the human body," said Yancy Young, project manager at Marshall. "This versatile facility not only will help us better protect human explorers on long voyages into deep space, but it could aid medical and scientific advances benefiting the whole world."
Boeing engineers at Marshall modified a refrigerator-freezer rack to house the core facility, using state-of-the-art, 3D-printing technology to custom design key pieces of the rack to secure the unit in its protective foam clamshell.
NASA is now determining the roster of science investigations lined up to make use of the facility, beginning as early as late 2018. "We've already got more than a dozen glovebox experiments scheduled in 2019, with many more to follow," said Chris Butler, payload integration manager for the glovebox at Marshall.
The Life Sciences Glovebox will be transferred to a zero-gravity stowage rack in the station's Kibo module, where up to two crew members can conduct experiments simultaneously, overseen in real-time by project researchers on Earth.
Check out more pictures of the Glovebox HERE!
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