Published: Sept. 13, 2006

A handful of University of Colorado at Boulder undergraduates will watch from the desert when a payload they designed and built launches on the inaugural rocket flight from a developing commercial spaceport near Las Cruces, N.M., on Sept. 25.

Known as RocketSat, the CU-Boulder payload will measure cosmic rays and microwave radiation, said Colorado Space Grant Consortium Director Chris Koehler. The 800-pound commercial rocket will carry the CU payload and about 50 other U.S. and European payloads and experiments to a height of 62 miles in 90 seconds. The payloads will then drift by parachute onto the nearby White Sands Missile Range.

The launch will be the first from the proposed Spaceport America complex, a $225 million hub under development by the state of New Mexico and several private companies. The anchor tenant is Virgin Galactic, a firm founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, who has said the company plans to offer paying customers suborbital flights from the spaceport within the next several years.

The CU-Boulder payload will launch on a sounding rocket known as SpaceLoft XL, owned by UP Aerospace of New York, one of the developers of the spaceport in partnership with the state of New Mexico. Twelve CU-Boulder students have been involved in the RocketSat program.

"We're excited about this launch," said Koehler. "This is as much about the educational experience for students in designing, building and flying a payload as it is about making scientific measurements in space. I think the new commercial facility in New Mexico is a very important concept for future access to space."

Koehler said the CU-Boulder student team will fly payloads on each of UP Aerospace's next three commercial launches from New Mexico through 2007. The cost of the three-launch package is valued at about $110,000 to CU-Boulder, he said.

RocketSat is a follow-up project to the Colorado consortium's BalloonSat program, which works with a Denver-based nonprofit educational organization, Edge of Space Sciences, to launch scientific instruments to 19 miles high three times a year on large helium balloons from Colorado's eastern plains, Koehler said.

The RocketSat payload consists of a commercial microwave frequency-detection device and a small Geiger counter to detect beta and gamma radiation. An accompanying "sensor pack" that contains temperature and pressure sensors and six accelerometers to profile the environment in flight was designed, built and tested by the CU-Boulder student team.

Nick Bradley, a sophomore in the aerospace engineering sciences department, who leads the team, said the hands-on project has intensified his interest in space science. "Some people are amazed that CU-Boulder undergraduates are able to get experience in spaceflight," said Bradley, who graduated from Boulder's Fairview High School in 2005. "But it was one of the reasons I came here, along with the reputation of the aerospace engineering program. There was no reason to go anywhere else."

The rocket, which will accelerate to 3,400 miles per hour in 34 seconds, also will carry payloads from New Mexico State University, Brown University, the University of Hartford, and Central Connecticut State University. The rocket also will carry about 40 experiments created by high school students from around the nation, according to UP Aerospace officials, who say they hope to offer up to 30 commercial launches annually in the coming years.

Created with NASA funding in 1989 and headquartered at CU-Boulder, the Colorado Space Grant Consortium is comprised of 13 Colorado institutions and was designed to give students -- primarily undergraduates -- experience in designing, building and flying space instruments.

Of the 52 space grant consortiums in the United States, Colorado's has been one of the most active, designing, building and flying three sounding rocket payloads, three space shuttle payloads, a satellite and hundreds of balloon experiments in the past 15 years, Koehler said.

"We hope that the RocketSat program will provide new experiences for our undergraduate students and perhaps ultimately a platform for college faculty working with our students to demonstrate their research in space," said Koehler.

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