NMSU project aboard and is fast-tracked to fly to the ISS

LAS CRUCES — A successful launch at Spaceport America on Friday took with it a scientific experiment, designed at New Mexico State University, on its second suborbital flight.

Now, the project is on a fast track with NASA to test at the International Space Station, said Gerardo Martinez, an NMSU graduate who volunteered to continue working on the project, which got its start in 2009.

The payload that went up is designed to test an algorithm in near-zero gravity and eventually in zero gravity that will help judge how to best optimize fuel usage depending upon an spacecraft’s mass in space, Martinez said.

“The algorithm essentially determines the mass properties of a satellite or spacecraft in orbit, the mass, center of mass and the inertia properties,” Martinez said. “This would be important for updating the mass properties of spacecraft or satellites in operation. You need to know what kind of body you are working with, how much it weighs, how the mass is distributed, to operate it more efficiently. If you have more efficiency, you have more capacity to extend the life of the craft.”

The properties of mass and distribution change when in orbit, Martinez said. While satellite and spacecraft designers try to allow for these changes during design and testing phases, they are likely to change over time while in orbit. The algorithm has twice been tested on parabolic flights, where a plane reaches high altitude and then plummets downward, simulating zero gravity. Friday marked the second suborbital launch test for the device.

The launch of the UP Aerospace SpaceLoft rocket at 8:01 a.m. Friday from the spaceport’s Vertical Launch Complex-1 is the 24th overall launch and the fourth from Spaceport America with NASA Flight Opportunities Program payloads. Flight data indicate the rocket reached approximately 74.98 miles, according to spaceport officials. The parachute recovery system brought the rocket and its payloads safely back. The payloads were recovered 30.83 miles downrange on the White Sands Missile Range as planned. This is the first mission in which UP Aerospace demonstrated the capability to eject separate payloads that require independent re-entry into the atmosphere. Three separate parachutes provided soft landing of payload components.

“Spaceport America congratulates UP Aerospace on a successful launch and for being the first private commercial-space company to demonstrate independent payload re-entry,” said Spaceport America CEO Christine Anderson in a prepared statement. “Spaceport America is also proud to support these important research payloads for NASA and academia.”

Pat Hynes, director of the Space Grant Consortium at NMSU, said the algorithm-testing payload was built by students.

“It was the size of a … huge microwave (when it was first designed in 2009),” she said. “This experiment was testing an algorithm that determines momentum on an orbiting body while a free-flying sensor was inside the body” of the craft.

The experiment had to be scaled down to fly on the UP Aerospace rocket and Hynes said Martinez and his fellow students showed great tenacity in getting the project to this stage.

“I always promised these guys if we keep going and fly it on the ISS, we’ll know we have something,” Hynes said.

For his part, Martinez credits NMSU, the Arrowhead Center and Studio G for helping him take the knowledge he gained on the project and use it to develope virtual reality or augmented reality technology for space entertainment and tourism. He is working with the city of Las Cruces to present augmented reality displays downtown during this year’s Chile Drop. Eventually, he wants to bring space travel experience to people who can’t afford the estimated $250,000 price tag for a ride on Virgin Galactic’s vehicles when they come into operation.

“Things like that are out of reach of most of us,” he said. “But giving people an experience that focuses on New Mexico’s space history, space tourism and space entertainment at Spaceport America, I saw a need.”

In addition to the SOF-2 project from New Mexico State University, which Martinez worked on, other payloads on Friday’s launch included:

  • Maraia Earth Return Capsule from NASA Johnson Space Center. This experiment tested a re-entry capsule being developed to return small satellites and individual payloads from orbit on-demand.
  • AVA from NASA Ames Research Center. This was a test of a developmental, low-cost avionics package, which will ultimately be used to monitor and control launcher systems designed for small satellites.
  • Green Propellant experiment from Purdue University. This experiment studied surface tension behavior of a new “green” rocket propellant in low gravity. Results will be used to validate propellant management devices applicable to both geostationary and interplanetary spacecraft.

Jason Gibbs may be reached at 575-541-5451 or jgibbs@lcsun-news.com. Follow him on Twitter @fjgwriter.