A project that began in 2002 will culminate at sunrise on Tuesday, March 15, when a team of Virginia Tech engineering students watch a payload section they designed lift off aboard a sounding rocket from a launch pad at NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility and travel 59 miles into space.
The Virginia Tech-designed payload section will carry and support "MAGIC," a Naval Research Laboratory atmospheric experiment. If all goes well, the payload section will deploy the MAGIC experiment, which will collect atmospheric particles and then make a safe reentry and landing in the Atlantic Ocean.
Cathy Herman, of Charlottesville, Va., a senior in Virginia Tech's Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering (AOE), is the design team's leader. The other students, all from Virginia, are Rebecca Buxton, of Falls Church, Va., a junior in the Department of Mechanical Engineering (ME); Jeremy Davis, of Richmond, a senior in AOE; Cari Faszewski, of Midlothian, Va., a senior in AOE; Aswad Jahi ("Oz") Hinton-Lee, of Manassas, Va., a senior in AOE; Kenneth Kawahara, of Fairfax, Va., a senior in AOE; and Tiffany Murray, of Norfolk, Va., a senior in ME.
The project is sponsored by the NASA Sounding Rocket Program Office and Northrop Grumman's NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Contract (NSROC).
"The students worked with NSROC engineers to design the payload section of the rocket, to integrate the experiment into the payload section and to evaluate all of the performance capabilities," said AOE professor Christopher Hall, faculty adviser for the team.
Three of the students have worked for NSROC during the past year as interns or Cooperative Education employees. Herman, the team leader, worked in the flight performance department and ran pre-flight trajectory and stability analysis. Kawahara worked in NSROC's mechanical engineering department on payload design and technical drawings. Hinton-Lee researched foam and performed buoyancy calculations to make sure the payload will float upon reentry.
"We also learned to work as a team to improve the design," Herman said. "We had to make sure the design would meet all of the criteria for the launch. In particular, we came up with ways to reduce the payload section weight so the rocket can reach the desired altitude."
"The success of the MAGIC experiment depends on the design of the payload section and its integration into the sounding rocket," Hall said.
"The purpose of the project is to give Virginia Tech engineering students the design experience," said Jan Jackson, education outreach coordinator for the NSROC program. "Chris Hall — not NASA or Northrop Grumman — is the principal investigator for this launch. The program is a prime example of government and businesses working with the academic community to hone the skills of America's future space scientists."
Jackson initiated the project with Virginia Tech in 2002 by contacting Hall, an expert in spacecraft dynamics and control who has an extensive background in NASA-related research.
Hall turned the NSROC offer into a capstone design project for some of his senior aerospace engineering students. Since the original seniors graduated at the end of the first year of the project, the design work has been carried on by student teams from different class levels and from mechanical engineering as well as aerospace engineering.
Over the course of two years, the Virginia Tech students have met regularly with Northrop Grumman/NSROC engineers to develop and perfect the design of the payload section. The MAGIC experiment will be housed in a nose cone, which is one of five major components of the payload section. Altogether, the payload and its supporting section weigh about 190 pounds, and the section is more than 10 feet in length.
After the Virginia Tech students and NSROC engineers designed the payload section, technicians in the AOE shop at Virginia Tech and at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility fabricated the section components.
The Virginia Tech team will work with NASA and NSROC personnel to man the Wallops Command and Control Center, the ground stations and the Wallops Island blockhouse during the launch, Jackson said. Hall will assist with recovering the payload, which will land about 25 miles from shore. After recovery, the Virginia Tech team will help analyze rocket flight data obtained through telemetry transmissions.
Jackson said that a second Virginia Tech-designed payload project is scheduled for launch in 2007.
Herman said the students plan to form a club open to any interested Virginia Tech students. The club will work on different types of model and sounding rockets and enter amateur rocket competitions. The club will be advised by Kevin Shinpaugh, an AOE alumnus and director of the university's Terascale Computing Facility, and Brian Wheeler, an AOE student, both of whom have amateur rocket licenses.
For more information about the project and launch, please contact: Cathy Herman, Virginia Tech team leader — (540) 250-2678, or Jan Jackson, NSROC, (757) 824-6178.