A scientific rocket launched from White Sands Missile Range got a onetime look at a comet Nov. 20.
The rocket, launched as part of a joint project between John Hopkins University, NASA, and WSMR’s Navy sounding rocket program, carried a special telescope used to look at the comet Ison.
Discovered this year Ison comes from the Oort cloud. “It’s a visitor from the outer reaches of the solar system, way out beyond Pluto,” said Stephan McCandliss , the programs principle investigator from John Hopkins university. The comet is a dynamically new comet and isn’t part of any stable orbital system like more familiar comets like Haley’s comet, so scientists want to study the comet while they have the chance. If the comet isn’t vaporized by the sun, it’s expected to leave the solar system and not return.
To observe the comet the rocket launched form WSMR carried a spectral telescope. This advanced type of telescope, custom built for missions of this type, is able to look at an object in space and determine what materials the object is made of. By collecting data on the composition of these extra-solar system bodies scientists hope to learn more about where the solar system came from. “We’re interested in finding out whether or not the Oort Cloud comets are representative of the primordial cloud out of which the solar system was born” McCandliss said. While the data will take some time to process completely, initial real-time reports from the rocket were able to give scientists some initial information on the comet’s make up. “We got a good measurement of the hydrogen coming off the comet today, which comes from the disassociation of water, and that provides a baseline for all other measurements,” McCandliss said.
White Sands was chosen as the launch site for many different reasons. The range has years of experience with scientific missions, and it’s clear airspace allows easy access to space. For this mission one feature the range could bring was its size. At about 40 miles wide and 100 miles long the range has the ability to not only allow the launch of rockets, but also allows for the for missions like this the ability to recovery a rocket’s payload. “At White Sands we can recover the telescope. People has a lot invested in it. So opposed to someplace like Wallops Island where you shoot out over the water and recovery is not guaranteed, I’ve always gotten my payloads back,” McCandliss said. In addition to the savings generated by being able to recover and reuse payloads, recovery also allows gives a better opportunity for advancement of the technology. “What we are doing when we refly is we find that we can tweak (the payload) and make it better,” McCandliss said.