For the sixth consecutive year, Hobart and William Smith students, faculty and staff will participate in the launch of a NASA sounding (research) rocket at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. In June, the HWS team will work alongside NASA scientists on the launch, for which they have been planning throughout the year. The program is administered through the Colorado Space Grant Consortium and is called RockSat-C, which challenges undergraduates to plan and create experimental modules that will become part of the rocket’s payload.
This year also marks the second time that HWS has participated in the more advanced RockSat-X program, with a rocket launch in August. “It is an awesome opportunity for students,” says Physics Lab Technician Peter Spacher Ph.D., who along with Associate Professor of Physics Ileana Dumitriu, serves as a faculty adviser for the teams. “The students interact with NASA, learn to design a scientific experiment, learn methods to build it, actually build the payload and test it, learn how to plan a major project and solicit funding, interact with other teams and, finally, get on a real NASA base and see their payload integrated into a rocket and launched.”
The RockSat-C team of Shreeya Desai ’21, William Elliman ’20, Victoria Loshusan ’20 and James Truley ’20 is creating three experimental modules. “They have designed a magnetometer set-up, integrating off-the-shelf components to a microcomputer system, as well as testing the magnetometer response to magnetic fields,” says Spacher.
Elizabeth Moore ’20, Josh Andrews ’20 and Jasper White ’20 are working for RockSat-X as part of the West Virginia Space Grant Spaceflight Design Challenge Payload Group. “RockSat-X is a larger rocket reaching higher altitude,” says Spacher. “It has an ejectable skin and nose cone that will fully expose experiments to the space environment at an apogee of 150-170 kilometers.”
Through two experiments, the RockSat-X team will measure the change in temperature inside and outside the rocket during ascent and descent and determine the vibrational frequency of the rocket during flight. “This requires the students to design both temperature and vibration sensors and integrate these sensors to a microprocessor mounted on a circuit board they designed themselves,” says Spacher.
Elliman, a computer science and physics double major, is a returning member of last year’s RockSat-C team. He is overseeing the acceleration damping subsystems and building and testing the magnetometer and muon detector. “I hope to gain more experience with sensors,” he says. “Academically and professionally, it’s nice to have this experience [based on] ideas I’ve learned in the classroom.”
Desai is responsible for managing the vibration damping system. “I used a 3-D printer to create containment systems, testing their ability to hold liquids and gels,” she says. “Based on this ability, we will suspend an accelerometer in these gels to test their dampening properties.” Currently, they are testing substances such as Jell-O, hair gel and honey.
For the past two years, the RockSat-C programs have collaborated with fifth through eighth grade students in Geneva. “I work with the Geneva students, teaching them about STEM with experiments [related to the launch] such as exploring the workings of magnets, bottle rockets and other topics,” says Truley, a physics major and dance minor who oversees the outreach program.
Overall, Spacher says the students gain a wide range of skills. “[They work] side-by-side with NASA engineers, learning design and build skills, scientific research skills, presentation skills and how to raise funds to support the purchase/construction costs of the payload. They also gain practical experience in machining, 3-D printing, soldering, electrical circuits design, microprocessor programming and outfitting mini-spectrometers.”
Past participants call the experience invaluable. Computer science major Elizabeth Moore ’20 is participating in the RockSat-X program for the second year. “The 20 days that I spent at the NASA base last year opened my eyes to how much energy and effort goes into sending a research rocket into space,” she says. “I will never forget watching our sounding rocket launch into space with our experiment in it.”
Christopher Demas ’17, a medical student at Brown University, was part of the first RockSat team at HWS—an experience that he believes prepared him for medical school. “I learned how to think critically and approach research in a systematic way, and developed strategies for organizing a team that I continue to use today,” he says.