skip to main content

Virginia Tech engineering students’ experiments to ride along on NASA rocket into space

September 20, 2012

RockSat-X Team Photo
Virginia Tech’s RockSat-X team includes (left to right) engineering students Stephen Noel of Christiansburg, Va., and a first-year master’s student; Robbie Robertson of Fairfax, Va., and a doctoral student, Diwas Thapa of Kathmandu, Nepal, and a junior; Brian McCarthy of Vienna, Va., and a junior; Ryan Hatton of Blairstown, N.J., and a freshman; Jason Duane of Gainesville, Va., and a junior; and Mark Godine of Lynchburg College, Va., and a junior. Not pictured is team member Rob Boone.

Blacksburg, VA

Virginia Tech College of Engineering


Virginia Tech College of Engineering students will watch their experiments blast into space this Friday when NASA launches a rocket from its Wallops Flight Facility. The spacecraft will climb roughly 99 miles or 160 kilometers into the thermosphere before diving back to Earth for an Atlantic Ocean splash landing via parachute.

The NASA-owned, two-stage, 40-foot long Terrier-Improved Malemute rocket is scheduled to blast off from Wallops Island, Va., at 6 a.m. Sept. 21, carrying a series of experiments created by students from Virginia Tech’s Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, as well as student teams from three other U.S. universities: Baylor University, University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Puerto Rico. The full flight time is expected to be 15 minutes, according to a NASA Wallops website.

“Launches at NASA Wallops are a sight to see,” said Stephen Noel of Christiansburg, Va., and a first-year master’s student in aerospace engineering who also is serving as team leader of the project. Noel recently finished an internship at Wallops Flight Facility and was witness to several previous rocket launches.

“The speed and power of the sounding rockets are even more impressive in person,” said Noel, who is pursuing a master’s in dynamics and control. “A launch is even more significant and exciting when you have a piece of hardware or an experiment flying onboard. At NASA Wallops, they will allow the students or employees fairly close to the launch pad, although outside the danger zone of the rocket. At that distance there is a significant time delay between seeing and hearing ignition, which is interesting.”

In addition to Noel, the Virginia Tech student team includes Rob Boone of Loudon, Va., and a senior in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Jason Duane of Gainesville, Va., and a junior; Mark Godine of Lynchburg College, Va., and a junior; Ryan Hatton of Blairstown, N.J., and a freshman; Brian McCarthy of Vienna, Va., and a junior; Robbie Robertson of Fairfax, Va., and a doctoral student; and Diwas Thapa of Kathmandu, Nepal, and a junior, all within the Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.

Friday’s launch is part of NASA’s RockSat program, an educational project designed to provide students with hands-on experience in designing, fabricating, testing, and conducting experiments for space flight. Virginia Tech has participated in several NASA projects during the past few years, including the RockOn workshop and flight, RockSat, and RockSat-C launches. This is Virginia Tech’s first launch as part of RockSat-X.

Leading Virginia Tech on recent RockSat launches, including submitting proposals and securing funding, are Kevin Shinpaugh, director of Virginia Tech’s Information Technology and Computing Services and an adjunct faculty member with the Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, and Troy Henderson, assistant professor of aerospace and ocean engineering, director of the Virginia Tech Space Systems Simulation Lab, and faculty advisor to the current RockSat-X team. The Virginia Space Grant Consortium also has contributed funding to several launches with Virginia Tech.

The RockSat-X team was tasked with designing a payload and power system to support several experimental projects, including  an optical nitric oxide sensor and an aperture vacuum seal release mechanism for the Space Barometer CubeSat – or a miniature box-like satellite – instrument, both built by Hokie students. The payload also will test two inertial measurement units for future CubeSat use.

Even on the experimental projects not built by Virginia Tech students, Hokies will be assisting in some work. “Baylor University partnered with us to integrate and fly their instrument as part of our payload,” said Henderson, referring to a Piezo dust detector built at Baylor that will collect data on small dust and debris particles with velocities of less than 12 kilometers per second in low-earth orbit.

Virginia Tech’s nitric oxide sensor will have an un-obscured field view of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and will use an optical bandpass filter which passes only light in a small band, around 220 nanometers, and a custom-designed sensor housing built by students. Serving as faculty adviser on this experiment is Scott Bailey, associate professor with the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a member of Virginia Tech’s Center for Space Science and Engineering Research program.

The Space Barometer CubeSat instrument, a small cube-shaped satellite, was developed by Greg Earle, also a professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Space Plasma Instrumentation Lab at Virginia Tech. Part of recent Lower Atmosphere/Ionosphere Coupling Experiments, LAICE for short, carried out with the University of Illinois, the satellite must remain vacuum sealed until in orbit, at which point the seal covering the device is removed from the aperture’s field of view, said Robertson, the doctoral student from Fairfax, Va.

“At the apogee of the rocket flight, NASA will activate a timed power line and a thermal knife on the release mechanism will melt a release cord. The cord will break, allowing four latches compressing the vacuum cap to flip back,” Robertson said, adding that the release mechanism is of high interest for future flights by NASA. “Detector switches will be used to determine the exact timing of each of these events.”

The final Virginia Tech experiment on board the rocket consists of two inertial measurement units as tech demos and environmental validation for future navigation technologies, and is spearheaded by both Shinpaugh and Henderson.

Design of the payload for the rocket by student teams requires strict adherence to NASA guidelines, in addition to communication and cooperation with the principal investigators of each experiment, Noel said. This included numerous readiness reviews along the way, presented by students to Colorado Space Grant Consortium and reviewed by NASA engineers.

“Each of these payloads performs separate experiments for each university, and the payloads operate independently of each other,” he added. “NASA provides each payload with power and a connection to the transmitter on the rocket which communicates each payload’s data with NASA’s ground station.”

Anticipation for the launch is high. “This rocket flight is different than any previous student project in that the rocket skin gets ejected, exposing our entire payload to space. As such, we also have to survive re-entry, roughly 500-degree temperatures, and a water splash-down. It should be fun,” Henderson said.

Friday marks the third attempt to launch the RockSat-X rocket. Two previous tries in August were scrubbed because of too many boats in nearby waters of the Atlantic Ocean for a major fishing tournament, and then foul weather. Another date also was rescheduled from earlier this week.

Student team members Noel and Jason Duane, the latter who is based on the Virginia coast, will be on site at Wallops to watch the rocket launch and, if recovery is successful, collect back the experiment payload and start extracting data. Some data also will be sent directly from the rocket to the student team mid-flight. The remainder of the team, including Shinpaugh and Henderson, will watch the launch from Blacksburg, via a webcam set up by NASA. The feed also is open to the public.


Steven Mackay