NASA Sounding Rocket Program
The Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph or CHESS-2 was successfully launched Feb. 21 on a NASA Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket from White Sands Missile Range capturing images of nearby stars.
The 1,108 pound CHESS-2 payload flew to an altitude of 191 miles. Preliminary analysis shows that the science team acquired all of its targets and received data.
This was the second flight in two years to study the atoms and molecules in the interstellar medium.
“This is fun work overseeing these rocket launches. At WSMR we will launch anywhere from 4 to 10 rockets a year, it’s a lot of work and like I said a lot of fun,” said John Young, Research Rockets program manager with the Navy at WSMR.
“The launch teams are from all over; MIT, John Hopkins, Cal Tech, and for the one we launched on Sunday the University of Colorado. You can feel the tension and excitement of the team during the month long launch preparations at the range. Two years of effort went into this launch for the scientists. While they are here you get to know and feel their excitement, humor, and personalities,” Young said.
According to information from NASA, to the casual onlooker, the space between the stars is benign and quiet. However, this space — also called the interstellar medium – is, in fact, very active and contains the raw materials for future solar systems.
“Our observations allow us to measure the composition, motion and temperature of this interstellar material in unprecedented detail,” said CHESS-2 principal investigator Kevin France at the University of Colorado, Boulder. CHESS was developed by Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the university by faculty, researchers, and students working in collaboration with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
Young said the rocket launch from start to finish will only take about 15 minutes, of that time it will gather approximately 6 minutes of data.
“During the data collection phase the experimenters got real excited about what they were seeing, you could hear them on the headsets chattering like parakeets that just got a bucket full of sunflower seeds. The data they received was really good and it will take them months to analyze it. After a successful launch all the tension and worry drain away and everybody ‘rides the excitement wave’ for a few days,” Young said. “The feeling of accomplishment of a job well done from the whole team is palpable. This year on recovery the experiment team dressed-up as superheroes. Two years ago they dressed like Mariachi band members. It’s all part of the fun.”
Studying the interstellar medium allows investigators to look at two things. The first is to study where planets like Earth came from. “These studies allow us to take a snapshot of the raw materials available that were needed to develop planets such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen,” France said.
The second is to better understand the chemical and temperature structure of the Milky Way galaxy. “High-resolution absorption line spectroscopy of the sightlines towards hot stars provides the richest set of diagnostics with which to simultaneously measure the temperature, composition, and velocity fields of the solar neighborhood,” France said.
Using this information on the availability and behavior of materials in space will allow scientists to predict if planets will form with atmospheres dominated by water or carbon-monoxide, and so are friendly or hostile to life as we know it.
The CHESS-2 team is made up of France, LASP research associate Brian Fleming, and LASP graduate students Keri Hoadley, Nicholas Nell, Robert Kane, and Nick Kruczek. CHESS-2 also serves as Keri Hoadley’s primary doctoral dissertation research. Several LASP undergraduates played important roles in the laboratory testing of the payload at the university’s Astrophysics Research Lab.
CHESS-2 builds on the first flight of CHESS in May 2014. There are two primary upgrades to the spectrograph used in CHESS. The spectrograph consists of two diffraction gratings and one detector.
“We are flying a new diffraction grating. This grating breaks the ultraviolet light from our target star into its constituent colors. This new grating has over 10 times the efficiency of the grating we flew on the first CHESS mission. This means 10 times the signal collected,” France said.
“This increased efficiency will allow us to look at more molecular material and richer chemistry than we were able with the first-generation CHESS instrument,” France said.
He added, “We have also had our detector refurbished. Both of these components are part of our technology development program to flight test hardware for future large space observatories.”
The launch is supported through NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program at Wallops. NASA’s Heliophysics Division manages the sounding rocket program.