Monday, December 9, 2013
(Continued from page 1)
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.
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.
At the end of the countdown, the moment came.
At the push of a button, the rocket shot up, rising above a cloud of exhaust and dust.
The rocket's bottom section, carrying mostly fuel, performed flawlessly.
"That thing was straight as an arrow," Atchison said. "It flew beautifully."
Atchison said this was the most ambitious student project he'd seen, with the members hoping it might go as high as 120,000 feet, about a third of the way to outer space, which begins, arguably, at about 350,000 feet.
But at about 52,000 feet into the air, things went wrong.
A computer chip malfunctioned, causing the propellant in the top section of the rocket to ignite five seconds early, before the lower section broke away.
It was like setting off a firecracker in a sealed tin can, creating an intense spike in pressure and heat inside the rocket.
"The exit portion of the nozzle was contained," Atchison said. "It blew the bottom part of the rocket off."
The explosion burned a hole in a motor casing "like butter," he said, destroying part of the motor and frying the avionics system.
The rocket came down, not nose-first, as some do, but in a flat spin, horizontal, twisting in the air.
Atchison said the malfunction and method of descent was a boon for Mide, which was testing how well its new sensor systems could withstand pressure and vibration. They got more of each than they had bargained for.
"The sensor data is incredible," he said. "The company is beside themselves."
Team Ursa members directed questions to Atchison, who said they were disappointed in the outcome. They got almost all of the data they wanted, both for themselves and for their sponsors, but the rocket hadn't gone as high as it might have. To them, it seemed like a failure.
"There were some bruised feelings," he said. "They wanted it to be a flawless flight."
Monday night, as he surveyed a team that was disappointed, dirty and emotionally wrung out, Atchison knew just what to say.
"I asked them if they wanted to go hot tubbing," he said.
He led them in the darkness to Frog Pond, a nearby spring where the 90-degree mineral water is crystal clear, an oasis amid the dusty surroundings.
Like many springs and geysers, Frog Pond is the result of an interstellar event, one that sent two giant meteors deep into the ground, punched a hole through the Earth's crust and allowed its molten core to approach the surface, Atchison said.
They used a GPS to locate the precise coordinates of the spring.
Knowing what causes a hot spring, and knowing how to build a tool to find one, is part of being an engineer and part of being human, he said.
"This is what drives mavericks," Atchison said. "In all humans, there's a real desire to explore the heavens and get off the planet."
Success in failure
Seasoned scientists know failure can be as valuable as success.
Atchison shrugged the malfunction off. It may not have gone optimally, he said, but things rarely do.
"I think it was a tremendous success," he said. "The Department of Defense will fly 20 or 30 of them into the ground before they get them right."
The project cost about $45,000 — $25,000 to building the rocket and another $20,000 or so to fly it. The group is still about $5,000 short of paying for everything.
Terry Shehata, executive director of the Maine Space Grant Consortium, an Augusta group that contributed about $10,000 to the project, said the launch advanced science.
"You learn from your failure. Failure is something that's part of the research process," Shehata said. "They're going to take all the data and stats from that launch and they'll succeed next time."
The day after the launch, Atchison said team members were already talking about returning to test themselves in the desert without limits.
With some tweaks to the motor system, they might attain a height of 200,000 feet.
Or they might go even bigger.
"There's a lot of discussion," Atchiison said, "about building a rocket that can actually go into space."
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287