HWS Team Partners with NASA on Launch

by Avery Share ’15

After spending more than a year grappling with the complex physics and engineering concepts it takes to design and construct a sounding rocket payload capable of withstanding a 71.4 mile launch into the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 2,886 miles per hour, it was a remarkably simple, two-word text message – ROCKET RECOVERED – that notified a team of HWS physics students and faculty that their year-long endeavor had ended successfully.

“As soon as we got the text, we all ran toward the building where we could retrieve the data,” Assistant Professor of Physics Ileana Dumitriu remembers. “It was a relief to know that the rocket got all the way up and came all the way back down and actually had data on it.”

Dumitriu and Physics Lab Technician Peter Spacher Ph.D. mentored six HWS students through the highly technical process of researching, designing and building a sounding rocket payload – in this case an experiment to investigate subatomic particles in the atmosphere – to be launched at The Colorado Space Grant Consortium (COSGC) RockSat-C Program out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility this past June.

The group – which represented one of the only liberal arts schools in the competition and the first group of HWS students to ever successfully launch anything into space – was chosen as one of only 10 teams nationwide to participate in the program, and one of just two out of the 10 to be given full space on the rocket for their payload. Fewer than 100 rockets from across the globe are launched into space per year, making the opportunity one that few experience in their lifetime, let alone as an undergraduate student.

Christopher Demas ’17, Lisa Ditchek ’15 and Jeff Rizza ’16 designed and built the payload and spent a week at the flight facility in Wallops Island, Va., with Spacher and Dumitriu. Joe Carrock ’17, Duncan Lilley ’17 and Matt Sanders ’17, who were not at the flight facility, were also instrumental throughout design and construction. The group received funding from the President’s Office, Hobart student government, K-Tech Corporation and the New York State Space Grant.

The HWS group was the only one representing a school without an engineering major. Being chosen for the program, therefore, is a testament to the merits and quality of the group’s payload design as well as their ability to integrate a diverse set of skills into a collaborative team able to quickly learn electrical and engineering skills that other teams had mastered for years.

“Coming from a liberal arts institution, we knew from the start we would be different from other teams,” says Rizza, a physics and environmental studies double major. “Virtually every other team was composed of students at larger institutions that were more technically focused than any liberal arts college would be. Quite honestly, this only motivated us more.”

Jeffrey Rizza ’16, Lisa Ditchek ’15 and Christopher Demas ’17, along with Assistant
Professor of Physics Ileana Dumitriu and Physics Lab Technician Peter Spacher Ph.D.
pose for a photo with their payload before it was launched into sub-orbit.

The project began in the spring of 2014 when the group attended the COSGC RockOn! Workshop. There, they built a payload using one of NASA’s designs, and then launched the experiment into sub-orbit – meaning it followed the path of a parabolic arch, reaching the fringes of the atmosphere and crossing the boundary into outer space before returning back to Earth’s surface.

“The students liked RockOn! so much and wanted to do the next step, which was RockSat-C,” Spacher explains. “For RockSat-C, we had to come up with our own idea of what we were going to measure with our payload, so last summer we started brainstorming and eventually narrowed down something that would be feasible.”

The group decided to investigate cosmic ray muons, elementary subatomic particles generated through cosmic radiation from deep space that are similar to an electron but 207 times as massive. With special attention paid to those muons near the fringes of Earth’s atmosphere, collected data would allow the group to explore important questions like what pollutants are in the atmosphere and how far up they range, the Doppler shift, and the rotation of the space craft and how that changes the energy spectrum.

“The research provides important insight into an area of particle research that has only been theoretically predicted,” explains Demas.

After deciding on an idea and intended results, an “Intent to Fly” form, which included a formal proposal and blueprint of their design, was submitted to COSGC. Vying for space on the rocket was just the start of the arduous process that required near constant contact with COSGC – including bi-weekly teleconferences – to ensure that design and construction progressed as expected.

While their collective background in physics was essential to compiling data for their monthly reports, it was actually their liberal arts background that the group believes gave them a true advantage.

The HWS payload was launched into
sub-orbit using an Orion Sounding
Rocket at the Colorado Space Grant
Consortium RockSat-C program.

“They know how to talk and interact, and they know how to present their work,” says Dumitriu. “Having an interdisciplinary team meant that each student had his or her own strengths in different areas, but they were all able to bring it together and work out the challenges.”

Once the group arrived at the NASA facility, the value of having a team that ranged from geoscience majors to pre-med students and women’s studies minors quickly became evident. Rizza says the other competitors tended to be “very compartmentalized,” with each team member specializing in one aspect of the payload design. Demas adds that with limited electronics and engineering backgrounds, the group simply had to “be more creative” than other teams, relying on every team member to have a full understanding of every design aspect.

Much of this creativity came in the week leading up to the launch, when the group was making near round-the-clock repairs to the payload on the floor of their hotel room, hoping to ensure that everything went off without a flaw. “One stray electric current or an improperly soldered component could throw off the entire launch, causing the payload to return with no data,” Dumitriu explains.

While standing on the Launchpad at 5 a.m. with the payload hooked up and ready for take off, the group didn’t know if the experiment would survive the launch. Regardless of the results, seeing a year’s worth of work, frustrations and eventually “ah-ha” moments put into action, provided an unforgettable moment.

“The rocket launch signified the culmination of a project that has previously seemed just impossible. The launch was breathtaking, and it’s a moment I will always remember,” says Ditchek.

The successful launch still ingrained in their memories, the group has begun the process of analyzing the data collected. With 18,000 spectra to analyze, and another 20,000 points from their muon detectors to work through, the group is continuing with this research while helping a new group of students design another muon detection payload for next year’s launch.

“The research we’re doing is real world research,” Spacher says. “There are real questions here that we are trying to answer, and the results will have broad impacts and continue to be expanded with further research.”

The group left their mark on the complex world of physics research and all six students agree that the launch left an equally lasting impact on them.

“I am in many ways a new person from this experience. I no longer question whether I can do something but rather ask the question of how do we get some problem answered,” says Demas, who intends to go to medical school. “Most importantly, I gained further experience in how to lead a positive and constructive group effort that will surely be useful as I pursue a career medicine.”


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.