MICA

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For a fourth straight year, the Range and Mission Management Office (RMMO), Code 840, at Wallops Flight Facility successfully transported their mobile range across the country to the frozen tundra of Alaska in support of science. Engineers and technicians successfully mobilized and operated a myriad of radar and telemetry tracking instrumentation to support the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfven Resonator (MICA) mission on February 18, 2012, which flew aboard a terrier black brant sounding rocket. MICA was an educational research mission designed to study the electrical/magnetic atmospheric conditions in the lower, downward current, auroral ionosphere.

This campaign saw the introduction of several “firsts” with respect to Range support. To begin with, updated telemetry recorders were installed at the Range, switching the recording system from analog to digital and allowing the data to be stored on hard drives instead of magnetic tape. Next was the first use of the new slaving system Universal Translate, Record and Analyze (ULTRA) at Poker. This system had been previously demonstrated in Norway, but this would be its first use within the Poker Range architecture. Finally, this launch saw the first operational use of the Mission & Operations Voice Enhancement (MOVE) communication system. New systems bring new challenges, but the team rose to the occasion and ensured customer requests were met.

In order to ensure these new systems were up and ready to support, many RMMO team members traveled in mid-January to begin set up. Alaska decided that, because the Eastern Shore had enjoyed a mild winter, these early-bird team members would make up for it during those first weeks of set-up. Despite the cold temperatures, all systems were ready to support by the time payload personnel began to arrive. As February rolled around, Alaska decided the penance of the Eastern Shore dwellers was complete, and brought the temperatures well above zero, making outdoor conditions easier on everyone. As the team marched steadily toward the launch date, preparations continued with daily systems checks and integration of the payload with ground systems to ensure proper interfacing.

At long last, the launch window opened February 13, 2012, and the team began the wait for all required conditions to fall in to place. The second night of the count, Valentine’s Day, the team was within 36 seconds of launching when the science conditions, like many romances, fizzled out. The team continued to report for duty, slowly adjusting to the “creature of the night” schedule when, on February 18 the sky exploded with aurora. That night, the aurora was so strong, it could be seen at twilight as the sun began to dip below the horizon. As the count progressed, science conditions looked to be steadily coming together, so the primary investigator (PI) blew past the T-10 minutes hold point and held the team at T-2 minutes. Less than two hours into the launch window, the proper conditions manifested themselves in just the right location and the PI picked up the count. Tensions were high, but two minutes later, the MICA mission roared into the sky as Range systems tracked and provided real time data.

This launch demonstrated yet again what can be accomplished through the efforts and teamwork of dedicated professionals and we look forward to what can be further accomplished in the light of a bright future!

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