“This project is cool, can I join?” said Richard Kahakui, a senior at University of Hawaii Manoa, describing his interest in Project Imua.
It’s not often that you can put on your resume that you worked on a NASA project that delivered a payload nearly 100 miles above the Earth on a sounding rocket. Project Imua is that project, a collaboration between various campuses of the University of Hawaii Community Colleges to send experiments into space.
“Yeah, I basically begged to get on,” said Kahakui.
Project Imua received a $500,000 award from the NASA Space Grant Competitive Opportunity for Partnerships with Community Colleges and Technical Schools to fund the two-year program.
Now in the second year, the teams for Project Imua are readying their experiments before they head to the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, in Virginia, this August. The four campuses involved are Windward, Honolulu, Kapiolani and Kauai community colleges. Each took part in Project Imua’s inaugural year in 2015. Some team members have rotated out, as is typical of student teams, but 80 percent of the participants are returnees.
The mission involves sending a Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket into suborbital heights of about 100 miles. The package on the two-stage sounding rocket, sometimes called a research rocket, is specifically designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments. It flies in a parabolic trajectory lasting only five to 20 minutes in flight.
The payload section of the rocket is divided into sections where each team “purchases” a section to guarantee its place for the mission, called RockSat-X. Project Imua is just one of more than a half-dozen college teams participating in the August launch.
Most of the experiments are set to collect their data at apogee, the highest point in the rocket’s trajectory. The payload section cover is removed, exposing the experiments to the raw elements. Data is stored on board and recovered when the payload parachutes back to earth.
This year, Project Imua, codenamed Prime for Project Imua Multiple Experiments, consisted of a total of six experiments. Joseph Ciotti, the director of the Center for Aerospace Education at Windward Community College and the project lead, said he considered three of them to be major.
“The most complex experiment, from the scientific point of view, is Kauai Community College’s contribution. Their experiment uses a neutron-gamma ray detector which picks up thermal neutrons being ejected from the sun during solar storms. It might also detect a neutron when a cosmic ray hits the upper atmosphere and ejects a neutron particle,” Ciotti said.
From an engineering point of view, the Windward team’s sublimation rocket, nicknamed Scuber, may be the most complex experiment. This small rocket uses a process called sublimation, in which a solid turns directly into a gas without passing through an intermediate liquid phase. Sublimation within a confined chamber creates increased gas pressure which, once released, can function as a rocket engine.
The group is using naphthalene, commonly used in mothballs, as the substance for sublimation. The thrust generated by the naphthalene engine isn’t great, but the experiment hopes to show that over time the acceleration increases and could potentially be used over great distances.
Cale Mechler, a sophomore on the Windward team, showed me the mechanism that should eject the small nearly eight-inch-long Scuber from the main experiment payload. The rocket sits on a rail that is mechanically pushed out by a worm screw stepper motor. This allows the rocket to clear the payload and move into the void of space using its sublimation propellant.
The Kauai Community College team also created a 3-D printed “hammerhead” camera rig that is attached on the tip of the Scuber to shoot video of the ejection from the payload. The video is relayed back to the main flight computer via Wi-Fi.
Closely associated with the sublimation rocket is Honolulu Community College’s experiment using an onboard Mobius camera to capture video of the worm screw ejecting the small rocket out into space. Onkar Nerukar, enrolled in the school’s Computing, Electronics and Networking Technologies program, showed me how the camera operated. Although Nerukar’s career path is in computer networking, he said, “this project is a different type of engineering and offered something new and exciting to get started on.”
An inertial motion unit and flight computer round out Prime’s six experiments.
“The greatest challenge of Project Imua is managing all the experiments across the four different campuses,“ said Ciotti. “We learned our lesson from last year. This year we leveraged tools like Google Hangouts where the teams conduct their discussions. Of course we relied heavily on phone calls, emails and face to face meeting whenever possible.”
On Aug. 3, the team will do a simulated dry run of the launch sequence one last time at Windward’s campus, before leaving for the Wallops Flight Facility. The launch of the sounding rocket and mission RockSat-X is scheduled for Aug. 16. The takeoff will be between 6 and 10 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. It will be streamed live on NASA-TV for all of us back home to watch.
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Burt Lum is a communicator, innovator, community builder, open data advocate, and sci/tech geek. He is the Executive Director of Hawaii Open Data, co-hosts Bytemarks Cafe on Hawaii Public Radio and the Geek Beat on Hawaii News Now.