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Week 14b: The Rocket Range Diaries, Day 4 [LAUNCH DAY!!]

!!!

DAY 4: “The Rocket Goes Fast Uphill”

Wow!

In a word, wow. What a day. But before I get too far ahead of myself, perhaps I can tell you a little bit about the rocket. (Feel free to skip ahead to the beginning of the story below.)

During the summer of 2010 (AFTER Norway), I worked for a company located in Winnipeg, Canada by the name of Bristol Aerospace. Bristol has many nifty projects on the go, but one of their most successful is the CRV-7 (Canadian Rocket Vehicle) air-to-surface rocket. Available for both fixed-wing (i.e. planes) and rotary-wing (i.e. helicopters), it is the standard NATO rocket (excepting of course the United States) and is used all over the world.

The CRV-7 in turn can be powered by different rocket motors. A few years ago, the C-14 was replaced by the cleaner burning C-15, which was less dangerous to a pilot flying through the smoke. The C-14, now being an old model (much like a laptop the day after you buy it) was repurposed. Its “downfall” of a visible smoke trail was irrelevant when used as a sounding rocket - as a matter of fact, it makes for better pictures.

Now, let me restate that for full effect: not only did we launch a Canadian rocket in Arctic Norway, but it was built by my future employer. When Bristol’s rocket engineers learned this, they were quite intrigued, as they rarely fire one so high and long as to fully burn out the motor or to observe the projectile effect. If any of my readers care to hear more about these flight dynamics or the basic operation of the C-14 rocket, feel free to fire me an e-mail. For now, I think it’s high time we began the narrative proper:

CANOROCK-1

Last November, two students from the University of Saskatchewan journeyed to the Andøya Rocket Range (ARR) in Arctic Norway. Along with an international team of undergraduate students, they were charged with the task of launching a scientific rocket into the polar atmosphere. This was to be the first launch of the CaNoRock program (Canada-Norway Rocket), a fresh new initiative in space education. CaNoRock's main goal: mission exposure - as early, often, and low-cost as possible.

Unknown to the majority of the Canadian contingent, a third U of S student was awaiting their arrival. On exchange to the University of Tromsø, one of the sponsoring institutions of CaNoRock, he had been selected for the launch as a part of his routine course of study. This is the story of the launch through his eyes.

ANDØYA ROCKET RANGE – ANDENES – NORWAY
12 NOVEMBER 2009

07:00 – ALARM O’CLOCK

The snooze button is the last thing on my mind. Sitting up in my comfortable hotel bed, I look out my window with a smile as I spy the iconic ARR rocket at the gate. Towering nearly three stories high, it contrasts sharply with the craggy mountain wall behind. Not for the first time, it occurs to me that this hotel - attached to the launch complex itself - has provided me with the best vacation of my life.

08:00 - BREAKFAST

After waking a few of my comrades from the University of Tromsø (UiT), we head to the cafeteria. Walking through the education and administration wing of the rocket range, we marvel again at the variety of programs and research performed here at ARR - from high school soda-can satellites to laser-radar probing of the atmosphere, from weather-balloons to NASA-sponsored rockets to the height of the International Space Station.

Arriving at the comfortable cafeteria, we help ourselves to the typical (arguably traditional) Norwegian public breakfast fare of cold sliced vegetables, hard crackers, and pickled fish. As a tip-of-the-hat to the North American visitors, the cafeteria has provided a small jar of peanut butter. While it pales in comparison to the two-kilogram behemoth I'd packed over with me from Canada, it is still a welcome addition.

Stomach full, I sit back and realize the room is buzzing with excitement.

Launch day has arrived.

08:45 – PRE-FLIGHT MEETING

We adjourn from the range “dining-room” to the “living-room” – the little touches of home here at ARR are intended to keep scientists and engineers comfortable over the course of lengthy rocket campaigns, and never cease to amaze.

As we run through the countdown procedure, it becomes clear that the casual attitude we’ve observed throughout the week has been set aside. The Range Safety Officer makes it clear that today’s launch will follow the same strict guidelines that govern every launch from Andøya, and that a successful launch will require precise teamwork.

Following the countdown outline, Alex, an Austrian PhD and a friend of mine from UiT, leads the presentation from Team A: Rocket, outlining the expected behaviour and flight pattern of the upcoming launch.

Finally, David (U of Alberta), the lone grad student on-site, presents his thesis magnetometer – an electronic device size of a business card yet capable of magnetic field measurement at a speed and resolution comparable with devices ten times its size. It is this magnetometer that sets our mission apart – more than a chance for undergraduates to experience a rocket campaign firsthand, we are performing real science.

09:30 – LAUNCH STATIONS MANNED

As members of the Team D: Telemetry, James (U of Alberta) and I head to the Student Telemetry station (NAROM TM) in clear view of the launch pad. Telemetry is the art of remote measurement; as this rocket is being launched with no parachute and an Arctic splashdown some four kilometres offshore, the only way to retrieve our data is by radio communication. Throughout the week, we’ve tested and re-tested our setup: our tracking abilities enabled us to monitor a satellite pass, while rocket payload transmission/reception was demonstrated both in the workshop and during the all-important spin test for stability and durability.

NAROM TM is different from the main telemetry station (MAIN TM) as it’s equipped with a user-controlled Horn Antenna – and I do mean user-controlled. The direction of the antenna is controlled by two knobs – one controls the azimuth (heading), while the other controls the elevation (angle from horizon). For the last two days, James and I have been practising our rocket-tracking abilities. With one eye on the clock and the other on the calculated flightpath, James calls out the angles as I attempt to match his call, smoothly transitioning between headings second by second.

09:45 – COUNTDOWN

With a start, televisions around the range flicker to life and the countdown clock begins.

T-1:00:00
Right on schedule, Launch Control Support and the Balloon Team launch the first weather balloon to confirm that launch conditions are optimal. In addition, the range Public Address (manned by Vit from the Czech Republic, a fellow UiT student) informs us that Fire, Ambulance, and Air Traffic Control have all been notified of the impeding launch.

T-0:50:00
Personnel check. James and I confirm communications with launch control tower, and test our Go/No-Go light. These crucial switches are the most elementary form of override – without a lit bank, the launch tower will hold ignition and the countdown will need to be reset.

T-0:45:00

Radio Silence. All communications halted while rocket and payload are installed on launch pad with umbilical and firing lines connected. Tension rises as James and I realize we are passing one point of no return. Once the firing line is connected, the range staff will be hard-pressed to disassemble the live rocket motor.

T-0:30:00

Radio Silence lifted. With relief, James and I swing the antenna around to zero in on the rocket on-pad and confirm that we are in communication. Meanwhile, the results of the balloon launch are in, and the Weather Team gives the all-clear. It is now up to Payload Team to confirm that all instruments are functioning.

T-0:15:00
Payload Team gives the green light. We are go for launch.

T-0:12:00
HOLD ON LAUNCH.
This is unexpected.

Within seconds, our phone rings. After recovering from the shock of discovering we have a phone, I pick it up and speak to Main Telemetry, the antenna operated by the Rocket Range personnel.

It turns out that equipment designed to accurately detect the rocket’s distance from base is not calibrated properly. Startled, we provide them with our calculated telemetry settings. After a few tense minutes, a second call confirms that they will not be able to solve this problem, and are switching to the backup of a needle-on-reel paper chart recorder.

(Aside: this short experience served to highlight both of the two great lessons I learned at Andøya. First, when it comes to rocketry, there are no B+ or D- grades. There is simply complete and incomplete. Second, the space industry continues to rely upon tested and true technology rather than the cutting-edge that most expect. Why? Because it works.)

T-0:12:00
Apparently time can stop after all.

Countdown Resumes. Highway near range closed in both directions. All car engines prohibited from running until rocket impact. I can’t say exactly why this step was taken, but I’m not about to argue.

T-0:08:00
Radio Silence lifted. Payload is switched to external power, and once again begins transmitting. A few minutes later, the PA crackles to life and warns all personnel to seek ground cover in preparation for launch.

T-0:03:00
Launch Siren sounds.

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as we begin recording data from the rocket. MAIN TM reports that the on-board oscillator signal has stabilized – used for range-finding, it is all the more critical given our present equipment failure.

T-0:01:00
We flick our Go/NoGo switch to green and await the tally with bated breath. Launch Control reports all systems go, and we let ourselves enjoy a small cheer. But the hard work is still to come.

T-0:00:30
Arm Payload

This is truly the point of no return. On our scientific rocket, “arming” involves burning out a fuse that irreversibly drains the payload power supply.

James and I take our places – I at the controls, and he just to my left with the co-ordinates ready.

The range echoes with the final seconds of the countdown: T-minus ten, nine...
We hold our breaths and prepare for the launch.
Three, two, one,
IGNITION

All that can be heard from our seats at NAROM TM is a sharp WHOOSH as the umbilicals disengage and the Canadian-built rocket soars into the stratosphere.

With practised precision, James marks off the seconds while I dial in the coordinates: T-plus one, two, three...

The next ninety seconds are a blur of numbers and dials. It was with some shock that James finally taps me on the shoulder with a big grin and reminds me that the rocket has now splashed down into the Arctic Ocean. NAROM TM erupts into cheers as we relish the moment, the unconstrained joy of a successful launch.

T+0:03:00
Our reverie is halted by a final crackle of the PA. Finding it difficult to keep the excitement out of his voice, Vit announces the highway is open, the launch-pad ready for inspection, and the details of the post-flight meeting.

CANOROCK 1 has been safely launched – we did it!

DENOUEMENT

We soon discovered that the high of the launch permeated the whole of Andøya Rocket Range and lasted throughout the day. The postflight meeting, groupwork, and lectures to follow were lighthearted and joyous, and the evening celebration was given a little more spark by a beverage run by the author and a few of the more industrious students from the University of Oslo. The Canadians were also treated to a celebrity interview by the local press, reminding them of the sheer uniqueness of the occasion.

This was but one story, though one pair of eyes, from one launch in November 2009. In the years to come, more stories will be written as man strives ever towards the heavens. If you’re curious at all about the universe of opportunity ahead, please contact Adam, NSID acv928.

END TRANSMISSION

Pretty cool, eh?

I know that’s the main story, but I have a few more thoughts to close out the day:

  • I can’t exaggerate the tension pre-launch or the sheer jubilation post-launch – from students and range staff alike. What an absolute thrill.
  • If anyone knows of a Norwegian newspaper repository where I could scare up a copy of that article, please let me know.
  • Even post-launch, there was still learning to be done. We Tromsø boys had been mostly reviewing all week as we had an excellent grounding in rocketry, but today’s lecture on drag and the striking difference between unpowered and powered cases was exceptional.
  • Today was also the day when Prof. Hoppe (from UiT) gave his lecture. I was looking forward to learning more about his rocket-borne lidar experiments (actually), BUT the five students of Jøran Moen from Oslo convinced me to jump in the car with Dag-Martin and head into town for the great tradition that is a beer run. A few hurried texts later, and I made it back to the range for the meat of his lecture and with six half-litre cans cooling in the fridge.
  • I can’t believe the story has come this far and I haven’t yet mentioned Dag-Martin! He was the leader of the Telemetry team and an absolute riot. He put up with my incessant twiddling, handled Raimo’s bone-dry sense of humour with aplomb, managed to keep the adventurous Vårin interested, learned a few of the finer bits of electronics alongside James the Mechanical Engineer, and even kept Lise a full member of our group as she battled not-swine-flu. It was his first time as a group leader, and he performed marvelously – he made the week enjoyable and informative, and helped us learn more than we could have thought possible. This is even more impressive considering that none of us had selected Telemetry as our first choice and were all rather cross when we had been placed in it.
  • On the note of our group, we spent the early evening putting the finishing touches on our telemetry presentation, including an interpretation of the analog seismograph-style range record (a comparison of ground-based and rocket-borne oscillators; comparison of the relative difference gives approximate range).
  • The joyous mood of the range lasted long into the night, as we cracked a few brews (my Norwegian steadily improving with each Mack Juløl, or Christmas Beer), played some carols and piano (Ulf-Peter – I mean, Prof. Hoppe filling in the bass line admirably) and finishing off with an excellent game of Mafia.

A red-letter day indeed.

Posted by adamvigs 06:15 Archived in Norway

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