A group of HWS physics students recently traveled to Wallops Island, Va., to test their research at the Colorado Space Grant Consortium RockSat-C program. At the program, which was part of NASA’s Rocket Week, the group launched their research payload into sub-orbit from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility using an Orion Sounding Rocket. The rocket launched successfully at 6 a.m. on Thursday, June 25.
RockSat-C is a national program for students to design and build a sounding rocket payload to have launched in a rocket out of Wallops Flight Facility. The program gave Joe Carrock ’17, Christopher Demas ’17, Lisa Ditchek ’15, Duncan Lilley ’17, Jeff Rizza ’16, and Matthew Sanders ’17 an important opportunity to conduct independent aerospace research, which they prepared for under the guidance of Physics Lab Technician Peter Spacher, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor of Physics Ileana Dumitriu.
The year-long research experience culminated on June 25 with the launching of the multimillion-dollar sounding rocket. Ditchek says that after a year spent researching and preparing for the launch, finally being at RockSat-C and watching the payload being integrated onto the rocket was a “surreal” experience.
“For the students, working alongside some of the best engineers in the country at NASA, and designing and building an experiment that they have analyzed and approved for the RockSat-C mission has been an inspirational lesson,” Spacher says.
The team’s road to the RockSat-C program began in May 2014 at the National Student Solar Spectroscopy Competition, where they won the overall grand prize. The students were offered an all-expense paid trip to NASA’s Wallops Flight Center to partake in the RockOn! workshop, the first step in a sequence of aerospace research opportunities offered by the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. At the RockOn! workshop, participants were introduced to many aspects of aerospace science, including building, programming and testing of a scientific payload, as well as project integration with a NASA sounding rocket.
“A group of people have come together from a variety of disciplines to work on something that interests them individually, and because of our mutual efforts we have been selected as one of 10 teams in the entire nation,” Rizza says. “It doesn’t take multimillion-dollar science centers and state-of-the-art equipment to be able to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge. It just takes personal interest and self-motivation. Too often I feel that students at small schools, like ours, don’t believe that opportunities like this exist for them. I hope we can inspire other students to pursue their academic interests, as we are, through extracurricular avenues.”
The workshop sparked the team’s interest in seeking further opportunities with the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. In the fall of 2014, the HWS team members submitted their initial proposal for an aerospace research project to investigate cosmic ray muons, which are subatomic particles. Upon acceptance to compete for space on the rocket, the team prepared a series of intensive proposals outlining their experiment, its scientific grounding, preliminary engineering design and utility of the potential results. In January of 2015, the team was notified that their experiment had been selected to fly in the RockSat-C 2015 mission, making them just one of 10 teams from across the nation to have space reserved on the rocket for their research.
The team’s project intended to gain a better understanding of cosmic ray muons. The project examined a topic of study that had not yet been investigated, and added to the scientific body of knowledge.
For Demas, he says that the project provided him with an outlet to pursue an academic interest outside of his discipline. The project, he says, also has been a tremendous learning experience.
“The caliber and uniqueness of the research will put HWS on the map as not only a great institution for the sciences, but also a place where ground-breaking undergraduate research is supported,” Demas says.
The students joined more than 150 students and faculty from other institutions who participated in NASA’s Rocket Week. The series of events also included a RockOn! program, in which students had three days to produce experiment kits that were launched on the Orion suborbital rocket along with the HWS student’s more complex experiment.
The project was funded partially with grants from the HWS President’s Office and the New York State Space Grant Consortium.