Early on the morning of May 31st, people living along the Mid-Atlantic region of the US coast may see a big light show in the sky:  NASA Sounding Rocket will Release Early Morning Artificial Clouds Light | NASA

The early morning skies along the mid-Atlantic coast will light up with luminescent clouds as NASA tests a new system that supports science studies of the ionosphere and aurora with a sounding rocket launch May 31 from the Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia. Backup launch days are June 1 through 6. 

During the flight of a two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket between 4:25 and 4:42 a.m. EDT, ten canisters about the size of a soft drink can will be deployed in the air, 6 to 12 miles away from the 670-pound main payload.

The canisters will deploy between 4 and 5.5 minutes after launch blue-green and red vapor forming artificial clouds. These clouds or vapor tracers allow scientists on the ground to visually track particle motions in space.

The development of the multi-canister or ampule ejection system will allow scientists to gather information over a much larger area than previously allowed when deploying the vapor just from the main payload.

Ground cameras will be stationed at Wallops and in Duck, North Carolina, to view the vapor tracers. Clear skies are preferred, but not required, at both sites for the launch to occur.

The vapor tracers are formed through the interaction of barium, strontium and cupric-oxide. The tracers will be released at altitudes 96 to 124 miles high and pose absolutely no hazard to residents along the mid-Atlantic coast.

The vapor tracers could be visible from New York to North Carolina and westward to Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Recently a sounding rocket launched from Wallops Island (near Chincoteague Island) with Mars rover prototype models built by university students:

Student-Made Mars Rover Concepts Lift Off

Virginia Tech students watch a Black Brant IX sounding rocket take off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. [Larger image.]

Witnessing a rocket launch is a special occasion. Watching a rocket launch with materials you made go up into the sky is priceless.

That’s how it felt for researchers from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and students from Virginia Tech and the University of Central Florida as they watched a sounding rocket launch on Tuesday, May 16 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. On board: Mars rover concepts designed by the students.

“Very few students get the opportunity to design something, put it on a NASA rocket and fly it,” said Jamshid Samareh, ‎research engineer at NASA Langley’s Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate (SACD), who assisted the students.

Funded through NASA’s SACD Internal Research and Development (IRAD) program, the project saw more than 30 Virginia Tech students and one Central Florida student conceptualize, design and build 3-D printed test models of deployable Mars rovers.

Dr Jamshid Samareh with the a design of a Mars Rover. [Larger image.]

The Mars rover concept has its roots in recreational vehicles that have elements that can fold, going with the theme that collapsible items make for easier transport to Mars. This concept has pop-out sections like RVs that would deploy once on Mars.

“It’s always fun when practical solutions necessitate creativity – not to mention it always looks cool!” said Central Florida student J.T. Madigan.

The test models were launched on a 56-foot-tall Black Brant IX sounding rocket as part of the SubTec-7 payload mission.

The Mars RV rover concepts were part of the nearly 1,200-pound payload, which flew to an altitude of about 154 miles before descending by parachute and landing in the Atlantic Ocean to be recovered. SubTec-7 provided a flight test for more than 20 technologies to improve sounding rocket and spacecraft capabilities.

Students at Virginia Tech are pictured working an assembling their Mars rover concept. [Larger image.]

A sounding rocket’s overall time in space is brief, typically five to 20 minutes, and at a lower speed than vehicles designed to go into orbit or beyond. The short time and lower speed are more than adequate (in some cases they are ideal) to carry out a successful scientific experiment.

Solving a packaging problem

Samareh has worked on many projects in his time at Langley, and says that getting materials to the Red Plant safely and efficiently is one of the bigger challenges.

“Part of the problem we keep running into is packaging,” he said. “We have to carry a lot of payloads – rovers, habitats and such. We want to package them on top of the launch vehicle.”

That problem-solving drive led to teams of undergraduate and graduate students from Virginia Tech and Central Florida to work on this project on campus with the support of Langley researchers.

The researchers and students designed 18 Mars rover concepts using Computer-Aided Design, or CAD, software.  Four of those designs were fabricated, assembled and tested before they were delivered to Wallops for flight on the sounding rocket.

“I have always thought of mass to be the limiting factor in space travel,” said Virginia Tech student Alex Matta, who was also the team’s graduate advisor. “Participation in this project led me to realize that minimizing volume of the cargo is important as well.”

“A rover is one the big pieces that we want to be able to see if it can be packaged in any way,” Samareh said.

The objective of the project is to develop rigid and deployable Mars rover concepts to improve lander packaging efficiency and aerodynamic stability during entry, descent and landing, and aerocapture, which is a flight maneuver that inserts a spacecraft into orbit around a planet or moon by using the destination’s atmosphere like a brake.

Previous concepts for rovers on Mars from decades ago were not the sleek designs of today – they were big, bulky and heavy, something Samareh did not want to recreate.

“They’re not realistic,” he said. “They cannot be efficiently packed.”

Evolution of the deployable Mars rover design started simple and changed to meet certain requirements, such as the height, width and weight needed to fit on a launch vehicle while taking up as little space as possible.

“Real estate on any type of launch is valuable, so I think it’s awesome that such a novel project was given the opportunity to flight test hardware,” Madigan said.

Samareh encouraged the students to come up with all of the crazy ideas they could so they could pick a few and specifically work on them.

“They come up with these ideas that I cannot come up with,” he said. “They have a different mentality. That worked out nicely.”

The Mars RV rover concepts also received recognition outside of NASA, winning first place in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Region I Student Paper Conference for the Undergraduate Team category in April.

When all was said and done, seeing the students’ faces at the launch at Wallops was “the biggest payoff,” Samareh said, adding that there is not only value in the designs, but also in getting students involved with NASA and motivated on a deeper level for space flight.

“There are things we learned from them,” he said, “and there are things they learned from us.”

Eric Gillard
NASA Langley Research Center

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See also: Sounding Rocket Mission Providing Real-World Test for New Technologies | NASA.