NASA rocket launch will test science package for future missions

NASA rocket launch will test science package for future missions

The SpEED Demon team poses with the payload section during testing at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: NASA Wallops/Berit Bland

NASA will test new science equipment for future missions with a sounding rocket launch Aug. 22 from its Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The Sporadic-E ElectroDynamics Demonstration Mission, or SpEED Demon, will fly new instrumentation as well as legacy instruments that have flown on other sounding rocket missions, but not together. The SpEED Demon instruments will be further enhanced based on the results of this launch and will then fly on a science mission scheduled for summer 2024 from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands and possibly many other rocket opportunities -probes.

SpEED Demon will launch on a 40-foot-tall Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket between 9 p.m. EDT Aug. 22 and 1 a.m. Aug. 23. Backup launch dates are August 23 through August 27.

The NASA Wallops Visitor Center will open to the public at 8 p.m. on launch day to view the flight. The rocket launch should be visible from the Mid-Atlantic/Chesapeake Bay area. Live coverage of the mission is scheduled to begin at 8:40 p.m. on the Wallops YouTube site.

Although SpEED Demon’s primary goal is to test the instrument set, scientists hope to be able to measure sporadic E layers in the ionosphere, the electrified upper part of Earth’s atmosphere made up of ionized gas called plasma.






NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft has discovered “layers” and “rifts” in the electrically charged part of Mars’ upper atmosphere (ionosphere). The phenomenon is similar to the sporadic E-layers on Earth, which SpEED Demon studies, which can cause unpredictable disruptions to radio communications. This unexpected discovery from MAVEN shows that Mars is a unique laboratory to explore and better understand this highly disruptive phenomenon that can occur on any planet. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Sporadic-E layers are like patchy, invisible clouds of dense plasma that sometimes disrupt radio communications,” said Aroh Barjatya, principal investigator of SpEED Demon and director of the University’s Space and Atmospheric Instrumentation Laboratory. Embry-Riddle Aerospace in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“These layers are visible around the world, with those in Earth’s mid-latitudes increasing in abundance and activity during the summer,” Barjatya said. “It is necessary to fully understand them to model them accurately and predict their occurrence.”

On Earth, sporadic E layers occur between 62 and 87 miles, a range that is almost impossible to study in situ with satellites. Only sounding rocket missions, such as SpEED Demon, offer the ability to fly through the layers and take direct measurements of this phenomenon on Earth. Electrical currents associated with sporadic E layers have been measured before, but not with a full instrumented package that can give deeper insight into this activity.

NASA rocket launch will test science package for future missions

A visibility map of the Mid-Atlantic region shows how many seconds from launch, weather permitting, the Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket can be visible in the sky. Credit: NASA Wallops Flight Facility

“SpEED Demon demonstrates a full suite of instruments in a single rocket science payload. The main payload ejects four instrumented sub-payloads, allowing simultaneous measurements over a wide area in space. Such capability should be used for many more scientific rocket missions in the future,” Barjatya said.

SpEED Demon is designed to test technology and therefore will not wait for precise science conditions to occur like other science-based missions do. “But we might get lucky,” Barjatya said. “The current August 22nd launch window is at the end of the sporadic Northern Hemisphere E layer season. So fingers crossed.”


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