Successful NASA rocket launch at Wallops included ODU payload

A sounding rocket with an ODU payload launches from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. (Photo: ODU)

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. (WAVY) — An engineering research team from Old Dominion University participated in the successful launch of a suborbital sounding rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore on June 22.

The rocket carried a payload, through the RockOn! And RockSat-C programs, which included the team’s research project along with eight others. All in all, more than 13 universities and community colleges from across the country were involved.

The experiments were launched on a 36-foot long Terrier-Improved Orion sounding rocket, flew to an altitude of 72 miles and landed via parachute in the Atlantic Ocean.

RockOn! and RockSat-C are part of Rocket Week at Wallops. Nearly 130 students and instructors participated in the two programs conducted in partnership with the Colorado and Virginia Space Grant Consortia. Program participants learn the basics of building and developing a scientific payload for flight on a suborbital rocket. After that, students may then participate in RockSat-C, where they design and build an experiment for flight.

The Old Dominion team included Connor Huffine, who received an undergraduate degree this spring in electrical engineering, and Cian Branco, an aerospace engineering student. Dimitrie Popescu, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, served as the team’s faculty advisor. He was assisted by Robert Ash, professor of aerospace engineering.

Huffine said the team’s research project was similar to the one they launched last year during Rocket Week. It consisted of an aerodynamics-related payload that measures pressure on the skin of the rocket to determine the distance from the rocket where air becomes turbulent.

“Measuring the distance to the boundary layer gives us a good basis for understanding how the rocket moves through the air and how drag affects things (like attachments) near the skin of the rocket,” he said. Huffine, who recently accepted a full-time position with a subcontractor at NASA Langley, added that the rocket launch was critical to the research project because flow dynamics are too difficult to simulate in a laboratory or computer setting.

“ODU gave me a good classroom foundation, but doing the project took that classroom knowledge and catalyzed it into practical knowledge to get a job in the industry,” he said.

Huffine described the launch as “thrilling and terrifying.” That was followed by a 20-minute flight before descent to the ocean and four to eight hours of down time while the rocket was located and retrieved.

“Those are nervous hours,” he said, “because you’re not sure if the payload functioned properly. We were waiting with bated breath.”

Huffine said the University’s team is always looking for new members and anyone interested in more information should contact Dimitrie Popescu to learn more.