September 29, 2013

Maine students' rocket flies 'beautifully' in Nevada sky

Misfire at 52,000 feet mars otherwise successful launch by Team Ursa, a group of current and former University of Maine students.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

Driving 22 miles across a roadless desert in Nevada. A call to the federal government to clear the sky of aircraft. A critical misfire 52,000 feet above the Earth. Soaking after midnight in a hot spring in the wilderness.

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The Delta P rocket lifts off in Nevada on Monday. "Delta" is a mathematical term that describes any change in a variable, while "P" stands for pressure, so the rocket's name refers to a change in pressure, something it experienced when it shot more than 50,000 feet into the atmosphere.

Contributed photo

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The team and rocket designed, built and launched by former and current University of Maine students, including Winslow's Michael Ostremecky, are pictured in Nevada prior to the rocket's launch on Monday. Standing, left to right, are Dick Matthews, Fritz Sexton, Gerard Desjardins, Ostremecky, Josh Mueller and Luke Saindon. Kneeling are Charles Kennedy, left, and Thomas M. Atchison.

Contributed photo

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Just a day in life of an amateur rocket scientist.

Earlier this month, Team Ursa, a group of current and former University of Maine students, went to Nevada to launch their 18-foot rocket, one of the most ambitious student-designed rockets ever sent skyward.

The mission got off to a good start, but the ending was explosive, according to Tom Atchison, founder of the Mavericks Civilian Space Foundation, located in a NASA research park in California.

On Sept. 15, Michael Ostromecky, 22, of Winslow, Luke Saindon, of Deer Isle, Ryan Means, of York, Gerard Desjardins, of Mapleton,; Alex Morrow, of Washburn, Josh Mueller, of Cannon Falls, and Robert Miller, of Portland, headed into the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

With seemingly endless space, the remote arid landscape is a place to test limits. Limits were tested in the 1800s, when hopeful miners came seeking gold and left behind ghost towns, some of which are still standing, ancient cans of tuna on the shelf, Atchison said.

Limits are still being tested today. Not far away, in 1997, a land speed record of more than 750 miles per hour was set. Every year, just 20 miles from the launch site, thousands push the limits of creativity in a free-spirited Burning Man festival, building massive sculptures and setting them alight.

This strange land is where the Mavericks help amateurs test their own limits by launching increasingly sophisticated rockets into the atmosphere.

That Sunday, they were there to help Team Ursa.

Once in the desert, they established a tent camp without cellphone service, plumbing or an easy way out.

"You're living out there. There's no driving back, man. We set up our own little mini-Cape Canaveral," Atchison said, referring to the site of well-known NASA launch pads in Florida.

Every time the Mavericks bring a team out, they build the site from scratch. When they leave, everything is dismantled and carted away in accordance with the Bureau of Land Management's directive to leave no trace.

The team set up a launch tower, satellite uplinks, GPS tracking units, telemetry systems and radio links between the rocket and the ground.

They were prepared to wait days for optimal launching weather, but it came earlier than expected. Monday morning, the temperature was 81 degrees, the skies were clear, and the winds were mild — just 43 knots, or 49 miles per hour, at 63,000 feet.

The team scrambled to get ready, filling the rocket, as tall and thin as a petrified python, with fuel and testing its communication systems.

Fully prepared, they contacted the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation to, as Atchison put it, open up a hole in the sky. Air traffic in the area was directed to avoid a 60-mile-diameter circle extending from the dry desert up to the reaches of outer space.

Shortly after 3 p.m., clearance granted, most of the team retreated a half-mile away, while Atchison put initiators in, the equivalent of equipping a loaded gun with a trigger.

"That's a one-man job," he said. "It's a little dangerous, because there's the potential for something to go wrong."

52,000-foot misfire

Team Ursa and the Mavericks weren't the only ones with an investment in the rocket's success.

It carried research payloads for corporate sponsors, including Boston-based technology company Mide. Atchison said he couldn't reveal all of the experiments on board, as they play a role in contracts between the sponsors and the U.S. Department of Defense.

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