With a thunderous noise, an Orion-Terrier sounding rocket blasted off the Wallops Flight Facility launch pad in Virginia, scaring hundreds of seabirds over miles of sandbars and swamp on the Atlantic coastline.

Rushing upward at more than 20 times the acceleration of gravity, within seconds it had risen tens of miles above a cheering crowd of onlookers. Eventually it topped 74 miles in less than two minutes. This launch marked the second time in 12 months that students and faculty from West Virginia University had sent payloads, or experiments, up into suborbital space.

It all began in the summer of 2009, when physics senior James Eakins and research associate professor Dimitris Vassiliadis represented WVU at RockOn, a student workshop on rapid payload construction followed by a rocket launch at Wallops. The meeting, sponsored by NASA and managed by the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, drew students and faculty from 13 universities across the country.

During the following year, a 10-member team of mostly sophomore and junior mechanical, aerospace and physics students worked to develop the payload for the summer’s launch. Preparing the team for RockSat 2010 was the culmination of a project supported by the West Virginia Space Grant Consortium and overseen by Vassiliadis, aerospace research professor Yu Gu astrophysicist D.J. Pisano. The second payload was comprised of flight dynamics measurements, an energetic-particle detector, a radio sounder, and a magnetic-field experiment among others.

“The students learned what was involved in planning, building, and testing a real scientific payload,” said Pisano, assistant professor in the physics department. “They learned that experiments do not always work as expected, unlike most experiments in a traditional lab course, and gained practical experience in building, trouble-shooting, and revising a real science experiment.”

One student involved, Robert Baylor, said of his experience: “The experimental experience of designing and building the payload could not have been gained through any class offered at WVU and has helped build a necessary foundation required of a research scientist.

“Professionally, the experience of participating in teleconferences about the design and progress of the payload will be invaluable to me when discussing my own research projects with other collaborators.”

A highlight of this effort was a brief but important collaboration with ATK, a major aerospace company with a manufacturing and testing facility in Rocket Center in the state’s eastern panhandle.

“A significant number of the company’s engineers and management are WVU alumni,” Vassiliadis said. “Their support demonstrates they still care a lot about the Gold and Blue.”

This semester the work has already started for RockSat 2011 with an informal twice-a-week meeting taking place in the physics department’s Hodges Hall. The meeting serves as an introduction to the payload process as the first three qualifying design reviews are filed with RockSat management. Construction starts in November and a special topics course will be offered in spring 2011.

For more information, contact Dr. D. Vassiliadis in the Department of Physics, at (304) 293-1824 ext. 33463 or dimitris.vassiliadis@mail.wvu.edu.



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