Undergrad Team Conducts Rocket-based Experiment


Students (from left) Genevieve Plant, Ben Burnett, Vivek Ashar and Shawn Doria at the NASA facility in Virginia just before the launch.
Students (from left) Genevieve Plant, Ben Burnett, Vivek Ashar and Shawn Doria at the NASA facility in Virginia just before the launch.

Early in the morning of June 26, four Boston University College of Engineering undergraduates saw their experiment fly into the sky in a NASA suborbital sounding rocket as part of the RockOn/RockSat event. Along with 100 students from 21 states, BU students traveled to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to test their experiments in a two-stage Terrier-Orion rocket and bring their data back to the home universities for study.

Conducted in partnership with the Colorado and Virginia Space Grant Consortia, the purpose of RockOn/RockSat is to teach college students how to develop experiments that require high altitude rocket flights.

“This sort of experience is why students choose a school with strong research programs,” said ECE Professor Michael Ruane, who oversaw the experiment and accompanied the students to Virginia. The student team included ECE students Vivek Ashar (‘09), Ben Burnett (‘10), Shawn Doria (‘09), and Genevieve Plant (‘11).

The preparations for the event were a year in the making. The team submitted a proposal for the experiment to NASA last fall. NASA chose BU’s proposal to be included, and paired the school with Pennsylvania State University–Mount Alto, and Virginia Tech to share a single payload canister for all of their experiments. Due to the small payload volume, BU students had to collaborate closely with the other schools to ensure success.

“Working with other schools was a great experience for our students because they will have this sort of interaction in their professional work,” said Ruane.

BU students were assigned specific areas of the experiment to work on, such as mechanical design, software and microprocessors. While thinking of their own experiment the students had to keep in mind the other schools’ plans because the payload canister with all three experiments would not be assembled until the week of the launch at Wallops Flight Facility.

“We had to work with our partner schools in order to have a successful assembly and testing,” said Ruane. “For example, if we needed a longeron with 5 screw holes in our part of the canister., We had to make sure Virginia Tech’s mount used the same SolidWorks information in order for everything to assemble correctly.”

BU’s experiment focused on comparing two  commercial, off-the-shelf magnetometers for measuring Earth’s magnetic field. The students’ processor and circuit recorded data from both devices during the 15-minute, 80-mile-high ride.. While the data collected from the experiment has not yet been fully analyzed, the payload was recovered and the data were recorded as expected.

“The flight experiment results will serve two purposes,” said Ruane. “First, in the fall, we’re encouraging the returning students who worked on this project to write a formal conference paper. Then, we expect this flight heritage data will help faculty who are proposing these miniature instruments as part of their research at BU.”

Ruane sees a promising future for NASA’s RockOn/RockSat.   “Our students would go back and do it again if they could,” he said. “It was very exciting for everyone to see their work on the rocket. We got up at 4 a.m. to drive to the secure launch area.    Wallops  families, friends, and local school groups all came to watch the pre-dawn launch.  It was quite a social event, culminating in a dramatic launch and a beautiful contrail in the morning sky.”