Alaska 2015 Campaign

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Mission Name: Alaska 2015 Campaign

FAIRBANKS, Alaska - For the seventh straight year, the RMMO program travelled deep into the Alaskan interior in order to support a launch from the Poker Flat Research Range (PFRR) just outside Fairbanks, Alaska.

This year’s campaign presented a greater challenge than has been seen in recent years because not only would the team be launching five rockets, but four of those rockets would be launched within 35 minutes of one another. On January 26, 2015, at 09:13:00Z, a Terrier Mk-12 Improve Malemute roared through the sky carrying the Mesosphere-Lower Thermosphere Turbulence Experiment (MTeX) which studied how meteorological processes control the impact of solar processes on the Earth’s atmosphere.Exactly one minute later, at 09:14:00Z, a Terrier Improved Orion screamed through the wake of the MTeX mission to carry the Mesospheric Inversion-layer Stratified Turbulence (MIST) payload into the atmosphere in order to measure the turbulent properties of the atmosphere between 80 km and 140 km, specifically the atmosphere through which the MTeX vehicle had just flown.

The MIST mission was a chemical mission that released a glowing cloud of trimethyl aluminum into the atmosphere to allow scientists to “see” the turbulent properties of the upper atmosphere. Thirty-five minutes after the launch of the MIST mission, at 09:46:00Z, a second Terrier Mk-12 Improved Malemute rocket lifted off carrying a second MTeX payload which would take the same readings of the first vehicle … only ~30 minutes later. One minute after that, at 09:47:00Z, a second Terrier Improved Orion rocket soared through the atmosphere carrying a second MIST payload to see what the atmosphere was doing after the ~30 minute delay.

Two nights later, on January 28, 2015, at 10:41:01Z, the fifth and final rocket blasted off into the atmosphere carrying the Auroral Spatial Structures Probe (ASSP). This was a particularly complicated mission, requiring the support of six telemetry antennas which were required to receive data from seven separate targets. Each of the targets started out as one group during the initial ascent, but after reaching the required altitude, the targets ejected from the main payload, two at a time, in opposite directions. The end result was effectively a cross pattern flying through the sky to study small scale spatial and temporal variability in E-fields that are known to contribute to overheating at high latitudes.

In order to prepare for this year’s complex campaign, the team was required to transport two mobile antennas from Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) to PFRR, as well as revive an antenna that had not been used in mission support for several years. The planning had to be completed well in advance of the actual mission so that the mobile equipment could be deployed and set up during the summer maintenance trip as opposed to trying to set up and test the equipment during the bitter winter cold of interior Alaska. After the initial set up was completed during the summer, a small advance team travelled to PFRR in December to work with vehicle personnel and finalize the configuration of the telemetry and fiber support infrastructure.

As December came to a close and the New Year rolled over, the full support team deployed to PFRR to make final preparations and conduct the required pre-mission and interface testing. Several minor challenges presented themselves, but the team was able to overcome those issues in order to support the opening of the launch window for the PFRR 2015 campaign. The team counted night after night, but good science conditions continued to elude the scientists and cloud cover caused scrubs on many of the count nights. Just as the team began to worry that they would be repeating last year’s need for a second launch window, the skies cleared, science appeared, and all five vehicles were successfully launched within two days of each other. In fact, the last vehicle was launched on the very last day of the originally planned launch window.

This mission presented several new technical challenges for the team to overcome. As mentioned before, the telemetry requirements of the ASSP mission were particularly strenuous this year. In order to ensure the best chance of tracking all required payloads, the telemetry and engineering teams developed a tracking plan that would allow each of the assets to use tracking data from another asset in order to stay on target. Because the targets were separating from one another during flight, the tracking plan had to be structured such that one asset could not receive any data that would drag it off its intended target. Ultimately, the plan worked smoothly and most antennas were able to track their targets without using any supporting data from another antenna or processor. The MTeX/MIST missions presented a challenge to the radar team who was required to track the MTeX vehicle, drop track when directed, reconfigure, and lock on to the MIST vehicle before it launched…all within one minute.

After months and months of planning and preparation, the team was able to breathe a sigh of relief as the ASSP vehicle impacted the ground and all missions had successfully launched. From an instrumentation perspective, support of this year’s campaign was one of the most complex that the RMMO team has provided the sounding rocket program in the past several years. Despite the challenges, the team came together to work through the issues and ensure a successful campaign.

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