Science

'A good day' at the Spaceport

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A suborbital rocket sprints into the early-morning sky during a Wednesday test flight for several NASA technologies at Spaceport America southeast of Truth or Consequences (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SPACEPORT AMERICA – It took two – maybe three – heartbeats for the roar of the blastoff to race over the half mile of rugged desert terrain between the launch pad and the 60-plus spectators gathered at launch control.

By that time the 800-pound rocket was just a bright wink in the pale, early morning sky, a hurtling glimmer of fire dragging a twisting vapor trail through the glare of the rising sun.

They’d said it would be fast.

“They are using a solid fuel, so it’s going to jump off that pad with great exuberance,” said Chris Lopez, vice president for site operations at the New Mexico-owned Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences and the White Sands Missile Range.

Launched at 7:33 a.m. Wednesday, the SpaceLoft suborbital rocket, developed by UP Aerospace, a space launch services company, tested three NASA technologies that may one day play a role in the exploration of Mars and other planets.

Using a model, NASA technologist Ethiraj Venkatapathy explains a heat-shield and planet-entry system tested during Wednesday’s suborbital rocket launch at Spaceport America. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“The origin of this is Mars,” said Ethiraj Venkatapathy, senior technologist for entry systems at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. He was talking about ADEPT, one of the NASA technologies tested during Wednesday’s 14-minute suborbital flight.

ADEPT stands for Adaptable Deployable Entry and Placement Technology and is an umbrella-like heat shield that ejects from a rocket and is designed to safely deploy scientific payloads, cargo, perhaps even human crews on the surface of other planets.

“This is what is flying up there now,” Venkatapathy said as he pointed to a model of ADEPT just minutes after the launch. “We need to show that it can come down very stable and not tumble.”

Made out of thickly woven and highly heat-resistant carbon fibers, supported by semi-rigid ribs, the ADEPT system fits into existing vehicle launch systems, but expands when separated from the rocket into a configuration that allows it to perform its mission.

The ADEPT model tested Wednesday spread to 30 inches in diameter after separation. Venkatapathy said a diameter of 75 to 80 feet would be required to deliver a crew of seven or so human explorers safely onto the surface of Mars, which has a lower gravity pull than Earth.

He said a thicker carbon weave and different dimensions would be needed to deliver scientific equipment to the surface of Venus, a planet with a gravity pull nearly as great as Earth’s, making approaches hotter and faster.

Wednesday’s launch marked the first time ADEPT had been tested in flight.

The other NASA systems tested Wednesday were the Autonomous Flight Termination System, which would allow the automatic termination of flights that go astray, and a system that measures the internal environment – temperature, pressure – of suborbital vehicles carrying experiments.

How the three technologies fared in the testing will not be known until the payloads have been analyzed, following their recovery from their reentry site on neighboring White Sands Missile Range.

“But even a test that fails is successful, because it tells you whether or not your concept is good,” said Karen Barker, strategic solutions director for Spaceport America.

What is known and was celebrated Wednesday is that the launch, flight and deployment went as planned.

“It appears to be successful,” Bill Gutman, vice president of aerospace operations for Spaceport America, said. “It reached the intended altitude, 70.9 miles, and everything is back on the ground.”

He said the rocket, which is 20 feet long and 10 1/2 inches in diameter, traveled at a speed of more than 3,500 mph and came down at White Sands about 30 miles from the launch site.

“We know from radar tracking that the vehicle was very close to its predicted trajectory,” Gutman said. “That’s always a good day.”

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