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NASA Rocket To Loft Tests By U.Va. Students And Pennsylvania Schoolchildren

September 12, 2003 -- On Tuesday, Sept. 16, if the skies over Virginia’s Eastern Shore are clear, a NASA rocket will soar into space, carrying two remote-sensing tests calibrated by University of Virginia engineering students and two biology experiments designed by schoolchildren in Waynesboro, Pa.

This will be the second time in three years that U.Va. undergraduates in “Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Design” will have sent such tests into the stratosphere aboard a rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, at Wallops Island, Va.

“This project gives students a realistic experience with engineering design,” said Gabriel Laufer, associate professor of aerospace engineering, who teaches the design class and leads the project. “We use real money. We use real components. We use real design teams with industry professionals and the students are expected to perform to industrial standards.”

It also will be the first time that pupils at St. Andrews School in Waynesboro, Pa., will have participated in a science project launched into space, said Mrs. Kitty Monn, St. Andrews science teacher.

The experiments, in a 264-pound payload, will be launched aboard the 19 1/2-foot, Improved Orion rocket, which will reach an altitude of 33 miles during its 20-minute flight.

Six U.Va. undergraduates majoring in mechanical, electrical and aerospace engineering are participating in the program this fall, Laufer said. In past semesters, participation has reached 20 students, a level Laufer expects to see again next spring.

The U.Va. team has put together two remote-sensing tests, one to check on levels of methane in the atmosphere and the other to examine chlorophyll in the ocean. Methane is a factor in the chemistry of ozone and its distribution in the atmosphere is a measure of global warming, Laufer said. Ocean chlorophyll is an indicator of pollution caused by the runoff of agricultural chemicals

The methane test will use a sensor to collect radiation from the sun and measure the extent of absorption of infrared radiation by methane. This will allow the U.Va. students to verify previous test results that NASA has obtained from space, Laufer said.

The chlorophyll test will gather data by two different means. The first involves a digital video camera equipped with a green filter to photograph the visible distribution of chlorophyll in the water. The second involves photo diodes, equipped with “bandpass” filters, to take quantitative measurements of the chlorophyll’s density in the water. A “rear-view mirror,” attached to the outside of the rocket, will allow the camera and photo diodes to look back at the ocean after liftoff and analyze its color to determine the extent of the presence of chlorophyll, he said.

The chlorophyll measurements will be taken of Metompkin Inlet, visible from the rocket’s flight path off the Eastern Shore of Virginia and downstream of intensive farming runoff on the Eastern Shore, Laufer said.

“We have upgraded the tests significantly from 2001,” he said. “Our instruments are much more sensitive and one of our sensors has never flown before.”

The St. Andrews experiments have been two years in the making.

In 2001, it was clear to Monn that her fourth-grade science pupils were fascinated with space. She arranged for a classroom visit from a NASA representative with the Wallops Flight Facility. Excited, the pupils asked if they could prepare an experiment for an upcoming rocket flight.

“I didn't think anything would happen,” Monn said. But the children were invited to a meeting at the NASA facility on Wallops Island where they sat around a conference table and heard a presentation by Laufer. “The professionals told the kids they were real rocket scientists,” Monn said. “The kids were so gung-ho!”

Two years later, the experiments are in place and the countdown to launch is just days away.

Now seventh-graders, the children at St. Andrews have been working over the summer and after school to develop experiments to send aloft. Deciding on a food-in-outer-space theme, their first idea was to send chicken eggs into space to see what an impact the gravitational forces would have — during the flight, the G-forces are expected to be 15 times greater than normal on Earth. But a University of Ohio scientist suggested they play soccer with the chicken eggs in protective boxes to see what might happen. Sure enough, the force of the kicks scrambled the uncracked eggs. A smaller egg was needed to keep the yolk intact. Their next hypothesis involved frog and fish eggs, but they grew moldy during the three-week period they had to sit, packaged, waiting for the flight.

Finally, the young scientists found brine shrimp eggs, which could withstand conditions before and during blastoff. From the plant kingdom, they’re also sending up lima beans and some smaller seeds. Packed in plastic vials, the seeds and shrimp eggs have been set into a sealed aluminum canister and placed in the rocket’s payload. Once the payload is recovered after the flight, the pupils will plant the seeds and hatch the eggs to see how G-forces affected them during incubation.

Next week, the 14 St. Andrews children involved with the project will watch the rocket soar into space via Internet streaming.

The long-running project has been well worth the work, Monn believes, and fits in perfectly with the curriculum at St. Andrew’s. “We have always had a space thing going on,” she said. “The kids are really pumped about it.”

The payloads will drop by parachute about 24 miles from shore into the Atlantic Ocean. A U.Va. student and Tiffany Moisan, research scientist in NASA’s Wallops Observational Science Branch, will collect samples of ocean water during the flight to allow accurate calibration of the sensor. U.Va. students will participate in the payload recovery by boat and over the next few semesters, calibrate and analyze the data obtained from the experiments.

The data will be used in developing the next experiment, which is currently scheduled for launch in 2005.

The project is supported by Northrop Grumman, the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science, George Mason University, the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, NASA Langley Research Cemter and the Virginia Space Grant Consortium. The Virginia Space Grant Consortium is a coalition that brings together NASA, Virginia universities and Virginia state agencies to promote science and engineering education and aerospace-related research.

“This mission represents exactly what can be accomplished when these entities work together to provide the kinds of real-life experience that leads students to study, more, learn more and become better prepared for the world beyond college,” Laufer said.

Contact: Lauralee Thornton, (434) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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