By Jim Eckles
Right now, three aluminum spheres containing a small amount of historical White Sands Missile Range are zooming around the earth going thousands of miles per hour. The spheres are part of an experiment to measure fluctuations in the density of the earth’s upper atmosphere in response to blasts of energy and particles from the sun.
The aluminum balls are all 10 cm, 4 inches, in diameter but each has a different mass: 1 kg, 2.2 lbs, 1.5 kg, 3.3 lbs, and 2 kg, 4.4 lbs. The spheres are hollow and use ballast that is a mixture of bismuth shot, the same stuff put in some shotgun shells, and sand from three significant historical spots.
Gil Moore, the driving force behind this effort, put together the balls and paid for their launch into orbit. He collected sand from where Robert Goddard first launched his amateur rockets back in Massachusetts and from Goddard’s launch area near Roswell. Also, through the efforts of some WSMR pioneers, sand from Launch Complex 33 and an up-range rocket impact area was collected for the effort.
Moore included sand from WSMR for the obvious reason it is where America’s missile and space activity began with WAC Corporal and V-2 firings. Also, Moore has past connections to White Sands as a contractor employee.
Moore was an engineering student at what is now New Mexico State University when the V-2 flights began at White Sands. He has said he was fascinated by the contrails left by the V-2s. The idea of big powerful rockets was a kick and the idea that the atmosphere was doing a variety of things at different altitudes was intriguing.
In April 1947 he went to work for the school’s Physical Science Laboratory, PSL, and providentially he got to work the V-2 program. He reduced V-2 telemetry data, this means transforming the raw numbers and squiggly lines of measurements into concise and meaningful information, photographed the V-2 vapor trails to measure upper-level winds and got to install instruments and cameras in the rockets.
After graduation with a degree in chemical engineering, Moore signed on at PSL full time continuing his work with V-2s. Of course the V-2 program ended soon but Moore continued to work with research rockets such as the Viking and Aerobee and was eventually supervising teams launching his own Pogo and Speedball rockets.
In the fall of 1953, Moore served on a panel of local experts to talk about rocketry, jet propulsion and space travel during a forum in Las Cruces. The meeting was sponsored by the New Mexico-West Texas Section of the American Rocket Society and included others from White Sands. The Wind and Sand newspaper wrote the panel stated, “Mankind is on the verge of the most exciting, adventuresome and rewarding journeys he has ever made into the unknown”, when referring to space travel.
Also on the panel were: G. Harry Stine and Edward Francisco Jr., both with the White Sands Electro-Mechanical Laboratories; Herb Karsch, special assistant to the White Sands commander; and Maj. D.G. Simons from the Space Biology Lab at Holloman.
Stine went on to become a prominent science and science fiction writer. Simons went on to direct the Air Force’s Man High balloon project out of Holloman. In fact he piloted the second Man High balloon flight that reached an altitude of 101,500 feet in August 1957. The balloon was launched near Crosby, Minn. and came down near Frederick, S.D. more than 32 hours later.
While at PSL, Moore continued his education with an emphasis in physics and astronomy. In 1962 he left Las Cruces to start a division of Thiokol Corporation in Utah. Since then he has served as an adjunct professor of physics at Utah State University and taught astronautics at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
After Moore retired professionally in 1997, he and his wife Phyllis set up an all-volunteer space education effort. This is where Moore’s years in the rocket and space business paid off with contacts all over the country.
Moore has become a bit of a wheeler-dealer using those contacts to develop educational programs that universities, small corporations and government agencies are willing to participate in, for free. For instance, the mechanism to deploy the spheres from the Falcon 9v1.1 rocket for this mission was donated by a company founded by one of Moore’s students from 20 years ago.
Prior to this he was able to get NASA to launch a couple of his satellites from the Space Shuttle and one from an unmanned vehicle launched from Kodiak, Alaska, as part of his Project Starshine. Kids and volunteers from all over the world helped build the satellites by grinding and polishing the array of mirrors mounted on the satellites. Then observers on earth were able to see and track the satellites at sunset as they orbited overhead.
The orbit for the current spheres is 80 degrees off the equator so it is not a true polar one that would pass directly over the poles. Also, the orbit is very “elliptical.” That means it is not a circle but a very lopsided oval. At the closest point to the earth, the perigee, the spheres are about 200 miles overhead. At their furthest point, the apogee, they are more than 900 miles out.
These distances are only true at the beginning of the experiment. Because there is some atmosphere out there at distances of even 200 miles, those gas molecules provide drag on orbiting objects and shrink their orbits.
In addition, most of us probably think of the atmosphere as pretty consistent, especially as you get away from the surface weather manifestations. But it isn’t. Because of blasts of energetic particles from the sun, called coronal mass ejections, those upper levels compress and expand, dense and less-dense, and swirl.
If the sun is particularly active during the peak of its eleven-year sunspot cycle, the earth’s atmospheric gas molecules are closer together. That, in turn, affects the orbit of a satellite or space junk more than during “average” times.
The Air Force is very interested in this phenomenon because they are charged with keeping track of all the stuff in orbit – everything from the junk to the Space Station. This is critical to the health and welfare of manned vehicles like the Space Station and other valuable satellites. If you’ve seen the movie Gravity, you know why.
Using their radar observations and computer modeling, the Air Force is able to notify users like NASA that they might have to use on-board thrusters to move the Space Station a tad just to guarantee its safety. It is simple collision avoidance but involves valuable assets travelling at high speeds.
To make sure these computer models are as perfect as possible, the scientists need to understand the sun’s effect on things in orbit, especially as the sun’s output shifts.
Moore’s spheres are helping. During most of their orbit, the balls are outside the atmosphere and only dip into it on the approach to perigee. Powerful and precise Air Force radars are tracking the spheres over the next decade. The total time for each orbit will be well established. Then, as the density of the atmosphere changes during the unexpected second peak of sunspot cycle #24, researchers will be able to see how that changes the speed of the balls and in turn the actual orbit.
In addition to the Air Force’s radar tracking, students and amateur observers using “Go To” telescopes are being asked to provide optical tracking data. When married together, these many extra data points will provide an even better picture of what is happening.
Moore says over the years the balls will separate from each other because of their different masses. After about 10 years, depending on changes in the atmosphere, the lighter sphere should come out of orbit. The heavy one could stay up as long as 15 years.
According to Moore, the new rules for manmade objects going into low-earth orbit is that they have to come down and burn up in 25 years. He says it is called “design for demise.” Since each of his spheres has a thin aluminum wall, they and the bismuth shot will burn up on reentry leaving a light scatter of sand to be spread over hundreds of square miles.
To see and hear Moore talk about his project, go to this short YouTube video: POPACS: Cooperative Science of Collision Avoidance in Space.