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Rocket On! These Cool Student Experiments Just Launched to Space

Dozens of students got to see their experiments travel from school to space. A sounding rocket soared from a NASA rocket facility in Virginia Tuesday (Aug. 14), carrying several student experiments under the RockSat-X program, in collaboration with the Colorado Space Grant Consortium.

The mission took place at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, beginning with a flawless liftoff at 6:14 a.m. EDT (1014 GMT). The payload reached a maximum altitude of 98.5 miles (158.5 kilometers) before splashing down as planned in the Atlantic Ocean, about 64 miles (103 km) from the launch site. The experiments and data were expected to be recovered by sea the same day.

"Participating students are able to apply what they learn in the classroom into a hands-on project," Giovanni Rosanova, chief of the Sounding Rockets Program Office at Wallops, said in a statement from NASA. "To be a part of this process is rewarding to everyone involved in RockSat-X at Wallops. [NASA's Small Rocket Launches in Awesome Photos]

A suborbital Terrier Improved Malemute sounding rocket launches from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, on Aug. 14, 2018. The rocket carried eight student-built experiments to an altitude of 98.5 miles (158.5 kilometers). (Image credit: Allison Stancil/NASA)

RockSat-X is the most advanced of a three-tier program that helps students learn how to build experiments for spaceflight. The other tiers are called RockOn and RockSat-C.

"It's amazing to see students progress through [the] RockOn and RockSat process," Chris Koehler, director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, said in the same statement. "They are able to increase their skill levels — skills that industry and government organizations seek." 

About 100 university students from schools across the United States watched their experiments launch on NASA's RockSat-X sounding-rocket mission from Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia, on Aug. 14, 2018. (Image credit: NASA/Patrick Black)

Here's a brief description of each participating institution's work:

- Several Colorado community colleges – Orbital Scrap Capture and Reclamation: This is a payload that generated an electrostatic field that can pick up small pieces of aluminum debris, using a rod with rabbit fur. The eventual application is for space debris. Participating institutions include Arapahoe Community College, Community College of Aurora and Red Rocks Community College.

- Capitol Technology University – Project Janus: This project measures cubesat speeds in a satellite constellation, using laser ranging.

- Temple University: This team is studying cosmic radiation at different altitudes, particularly in terms of flux and angular distribution.

- University of Colorado Boulder – Measuring Emitting Ground stations using Antennas Listening for Oscillating Doppler Outputs from NEXRAD (MEGALODON): This experiment measures the radio signals from a doppler radar network called NEXRAD, to see how quickly the signals drop off at higher altitudes. 

- University of Maryland – Stratification and Tribocharging Analysis of Regolith (STAR): This experiment measures the electrical charge building up on a regolith simulant in the space environment.

- University of Maryland – Space Characterization and Assessment of Manipulator Performance (SCAMP): A robotic manipulator is being tested for stability, for a satellite servicing rocket experiment being designed at the university.

- University of Puerto Rico: This experiment collects micrometeorites at an altitude of between 50 and 70 miles (80 to 110 km), searching particularly for organic molecules such as DNA, RNA and nucleic acids.

- Virginia Tech – ThinSat: Three ThinSats were deployed to study UV radiation, ionizing radiation, radio transmissions and reaction wheel stabilization. This project includes collaboration with Blacksburg High School.

- West Virginia Collaboration: This experiment included participation from several postsecondary institutions. Hobart and William Smith Colleges were interested in measuring payload vibration. Marshall University tested an automatic target acquisition system with target stars. West Virginia State University tested designs and interferometry for future cubesat missions. West Virginia University tested a capsule designed to protect experiments, as well as an advanced plasma spectrometer. West Virginia Wesleyan College tested solar panel technology and the validity of magnetometer data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The next flight of the RockSat-X program, called RockSat-XN, will launch from the Andoya Space Center in Norway in January 2019. It will include experiments developed by students in the United States, Norway and Japan.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.