CU Scientists, Students To Launch Sounding Rocket Payload April 10

April 9, 2008

The University of Colorado at Boulder's own version of "The Rocket Boys" (and Girls) will help to launch a CU payload on a sounding rocket to measure ultraviolet radiation from the sun from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico April 10.

Developed by CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, the payload will reach a height of nearly 200 miles, said LASP Senior Research Associate Tom Woods, principal investigator on the effort. Woods and LASP instrument scientist Phil Chamberlin will travel to the launch with three CU-Boulder students: graduate students Michael Klapetzky and Rachel Hock and freshman Vicki Hsu.

The payload is tied to a LASP instrument known as the Solar Extreme Ultraviolet Experiment, or SEE, flying on NASA's orbiting TIMED mission, said Woods. The LASP sounding rocket instrument will calibrate the SEE instrument and also make UV radiation observations of the sun, he said.

The payload will launch aboard a NASA Terrier-Black Brandt sounding rocket at 2:36 p.m. MDT on April 10. The payload will be in the air about 20 minutes before floating back to Earth by parachute, where it will be recovered by the CU-Boulder team, said Woods.

Solar UV radiation is the primary energy input for Earth's atmosphere, heating the upper atmosphere and changing its composition -- including processes that influence the production and destruction of protective ozone, said Chamberlin. Because solar UV radiation is absorbed high in the atmosphere, observations must be made by satellites, rockets or high-flying aircraft, he said.

The launch comes a week before Homer Hickam, author of the acclaimed book, "The Rocket Boys," will be on the CU-Boulder campus to participate in two events as part of the One Book One Boulder County program. Selected by Boulder County in 2008 for reading in the community and schools, "The Rocket Boys" was made into the popular 1999 movie, "October Sky," which tells Hickam's story of growing up as a coalminer's son whose dream of launching rockets is realized against all odds.

Woods said that since UV instruments can degrade significantly in space, it is critical for scientists to calibrate them regularly to understand exactly how much solar radiation has been varying over time. This is the fifth sounding rocket calibration flight for SEE, which was launched on TIMED in December 2001. The team also will use the launch to measure changes in UV radiation during the 11-year solar cycle minimum, which is now believed by scientists to be underway.

"Since the natural solar influence on climate change is at its lowest during the solar-cycle minimum, this period provides us a good opportunity to distinguish between solar influences and human-induced influences like greenhouses gases from burning fossil fuels," said Woods.

Woods also is the principal investigator on the Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment, or EVE, that will fly on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in 2009 and which will continue to take solar UV measurements after the TIMED mission comes to an end in the next several years.

"The future observations by the Solar Dynamics Observatory and the EVE instrument will be extremely useful for national space weather observations led by NOAA and the Air Force," said Woods. "The data will provide key input for space weather observations that are used to predict communication and navigation disruptions that are of concern to airline companies, power plants and satellite operators."

LASP has launched about 250 sounding rockets since 1947. LASP's Rick Kohnert, who is now at White Sands for the April 10 Launch, will give a talk at the Boulder Public Library's Canyon Theater on May 7 at 7 p.m. titled "From Horseback to Helicopters: A History of Sounding Rockets at the University of Colorado." The Boulder Public Library is located at 1000 Canyon Blvd.

Hickam will speak at a free, public event at Macky Auditorium on Friday, April 18, at 7 p.m., and also will speak at a welcome dinner Thursday, April 17, at the Stadium Club at CU-Boulder's Folsom Field. The cost is $35 per person.

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