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Spaceport's first rocket to carry NMSU payload

The first rocket to be launched from New Mexico's Southwest Regional Spaceport will carry a payload from New Mexico State University.



An UP Aerospace rocket, shown here on its launch rail, will be the first to fly from the Southwest Regional Spaceport. Among its payloads will be instruments for a satellite being developed by New Mexico State University. (Courtesy photo)

14, UP Aerospace Inc. plans to launch a single-stage SpaceLoft XL rocket on a suborbital flight that will reach an altitude of about 70 miles. This inaugural flight from the state's new spaceport will carry 11 payloads, said UP Aerospace President Jerry Larson, including one that will test instruments for a satellite being developed by students, faculty and staff members in the NMSU College of Engineering.


The NMSU payload will include a flight computer, Earth sensor, magnetic field meter and other instruments - all subsystems of a small satellite the university is developing as part of a U.S. Air Force-sponsored competition.

"With this rocket flight we want to validate that the hardware is doing what we want it to do," said Stephen Horan, head of NMSU's Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "We want to make sure there are no glitches."

Next year the NMSU "nanosatellite" will compete with a dozen other university-designed projects for selection by the Air Force for launching into orbit. The NMSU satellite will carry a cosmic ray experiment and also be equipped with an experimental robotic arm.

The instruments to be tested during the UP Aerospace rocket flight are designed to provide information on, for instance, which way the satellite is pointed in space.

"We will also have instrumentation to measure the performance of the rocket, so we can know what kinds of conditions the instruments were subjected to during the rocket flight," Horan said. A pressure sensor will tell how high the rocket is, and an accelerometer will measure the speed and shaking.


Larson expects the rocket to be traveling at just over Mach 5 - five times the speed of sound, or nearly 3,400 miles per hour - when the rocket's motor burns out after about 13 seconds of thrust. By then it will be at about 40,000 feet, on its way to an apogee - highest point - of about 70 miles above Earth.

The reusable upstage portion of the rocket, where the payloads will be carried, will return to Earth by parachute. It is expected to touch down on the White Sands Missile Range about 33 miles from the spaceport, Larson said.

The NMSU payload already has had one test flight - a high-altitude balloon ride with an unexpectedly rough landing that proved the equipment's ruggedness. The balloon flight was part of a mid-June workshop in Boulder, Colo., for all the teams competing in the Air Force's University Nanosatellite Program.

"The balloon we were riding unfortunately had a leak in it and didn't make it to its target altitude of about 100,000 feet," said Michelle Chavez, a graduate student in electrical engineering and a member of NMSU's nanosatellite team.

"The balloon made it to 60,000 feet and began to drift," Chavez said. "When this was apparent, it was cut down and the payloads descended. When the string containing the payloads hit the ground, a burst of wind came and inflated the parachute, dragging the payloads about the length of a football field. Despite the violent landing, we are happy to say that our box suffered minor damage!"

The rocket launch will be another confidence-building step for the team.

About half of the rocket's payloads are university experiments and the others are commercial payloads, Larson said. Altogether, the payloads carry more than 50 experiments.

"Part of making these kinds of launches inexpensive is to have more than one customer," he said. "We designed this rocket to be able to divvy it up so that the cost is shared."

In announcing the Aug. 14 launch date, UP Aerospace CEO Eric Knight said the company is "abundantly proud to have teamed up with New Mexico on this historic endeavor. Not only does this commercial space launch mark a new era in America's private space industry, it opens the door to wonderful achievements destined to occur from New Mexico."

First photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/horan_stephen.jpg.
CUTLINE: Engineering Professor Stephen Horan, center, works with students Jeremy Bruggemann, left, and Michelle Chavez to develop a test instrument that will eventually be launched into space. (NMSU photo by Ben La Marca)

Second photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/pathfinder_rocket.jpg.
CUTLINE: An UP Aerospace rocket, shown here on its launch rail, will be the first to fly from the Southwest Regional Spaceport. Among its payloads will be instruments for a satellite being developed by New Mexico State University. (Courtesy photo)

Karl Hill
July 6, 2006