After taking first prize in the NASA/Montana National Student Solar Spectroscopy Competition, Hobart and William Smith Colleges physics students were awarded a trip to NASA’s Flight Facility in Wallops, Va., to assemble a scientific payload to launch into space through the RockOn! Program.
At the Wallops Flight Facility, Jeff Rizza ’16, Christopher Demas ’17, Joe Carrock ’17 — along with Physics Lab Technician Peter Spacher, Ph.D. and Assistant Professor of Physics Josh Nollenberg — were split into two groups to assemble individual sensor payloads comprised of an accelerometer, temperature and humidity sensors, and a Geiger Muëller Counter, which determines radiation fields as the rocket increases and decreases in altitude.
“How do the internal parts of the rocket change in pressure and temperature as it goes up? Does acceleration have an effect on these measurements? This experience allows students to understand NASA’s mission and how the students’ course of study can be integrated with that mission; to learn skills in putting together a sensor payload, soldering components, integrating components to a computer system, analyzing the data they’ve retrieved to tell something about the natural environment,” says Spacher.
On June 26, the payload was launched aboard a two-stage rocket to the fringes Earth’s atmosphere, reaching an altitude of approximately 75 miles in a matter of minutes.
“We were standing a quarter-mile away and in a second and a half had lost sight of the rocket,” Spacher says. “When we lost sight of it is when we heard it.”
The rocket, 42 feet long and approximately 5,000 pounds, successfully landed in the Atlantic Ocean about 40 miles off the coast of Virginia and was recovered a few hours after launch.
Along with the scientific instruments, the participants had an opportunity to send small personal mementos into space, along with Hobart and William Smith pennants and copies of the Colleges’ alma maters.
“Being able to compete at the NSSSC and then being awarded the unique opportunity to work with NASA was inspirational for me,” says Demas. “The RockOn workshop was incredible and has absolutely fostered my academic interests in physics and interests in aerospace research. It has all been an excellent experience and I can’t wait so see where it leads me.”
For the Physics Department, Spacher says, this experience was a chance “to expose our students to practical applications of physics and to the space program, and to give students the opportunity to become involved in the space program, and recognize future employment opportunities and uses of their degree in the sciences. To be able to retrieve data, pull sensors out of rocket, and see how the rocket is assembled — most college students would never have that opportunity.”
This prestigious, “out of this world” experience was sponsored by the Montana Space Consortium and offers a stepping-stone for future aerospace research and other scientific projects at HWS.
With hopes of future NASA collaboration, the HWS team hopes to build a more advanced type of rocket payload, the RockSat-C. The experiment and instrument will be designed and built by HWS students.
The photos above feature a rocket launched from NASA’s field base in Wallops, Va.; Jeffrey Rizza ’16, Christopher Demas ’17 and Physics lab technician Peter Spacher, Ph.D. assembling the payload comprised of a Geiger Muëller Counter, Accelerometer, Temperature and Humidity sensors; and Spacher, Rizza, Joseph Carrock ’17, Demas and Assistant Professor of Physics Joshua Nollenberg posing for a photo.