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Nurturing the Next Generation of Scholars

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

Recording Atmospheric Density in Space

studentsFour current and two former UNC Physics majors saw a year long effort end successfully in July 2011 when the scientific apparatus they spent thousands of hours preparing was successfully jettisoned from a NASA sub- orbital rocket into outer space 76 miles above Earth.

As it fell toward Earth, the capsule the students built collected atmospheric density data that was transmitted to a radio receiver still in the rocket. After transmitting the data, the students’ capsule, which was not intended to be recovered, burned up as it re- entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 4,200 miles per hour. The rocket containing the received data was recovered by a NASA ship.

“It took more than a few sessions of working 48 hours straight” said project team member Maurice Woods. “We’re proud of what we accomplished, and it was all worth it. I can’t believe how much we learned.”

Woods said the students’ project included machining the capsule’s aluminum parts and ejection system to exacting standards, modifying and incorporating electronics into the capsule, programming those electronics to accomplish their intended tasks, and providing required progress reports to NASA.

The project was supported by the NASA-funded Colorado Space Grant Consortium, which helps NASA develop the scientists who will play key roles in future U.S. space exploration, with additional support from faculty in the UNC Physics program.

The other current students on the team were Robert Shiely, Jordan Kohnen, and Aaron Adamson. Casey Kuhns and Motoaki Honda, who graduated with their Physics degrees before the launch, also played key roles, Woods said.

All six students made it to the launch at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia, with the four current students transporting themselves there the old-fashioned way, with a summer road trip.

nasaTo stretch available funds, the four carried the capsule to the launch in a 1979 Winnebago that Woods’ grandparents no longer needed. That 4,000- mile roundtrip journey was an adventure itself. Along the trip, the students dealt with engine trouble and toured the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory just outside Chicago. At 3.9 miles in circumference, it’s the world’s second largest energy particle accelerator.

The students have not yet decided the future of their NASA research. “We’re considering some ideas,” Woods said. “We might try something new or we might build upon and refine this year’s [experiment].”