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A UAH student-built payload goes to space for first time since ’13

HUNTSVILLE — For the first time in almost a decade, a payload created by a student-led group at the University of Alabama in Huntsville has rocketed to space.

The students are in the Terminus Spaceflight Research Group, under the auspices of the Space Hardware Club at UAH. They are analyzing the data sent back by the flight monitoring equipment they built.

The payload rocketed to a suborbital flight to space and back aboard a Terrier-Orion rocket. It launched June 24 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. There were 32 other university student projects aboard as part of the NASA RockOn and RockSat-C programs. The last UAH student-led project to go to space was the SHC’s ChargerSat-1 in 2013.

The completed flight monitoring payload.
(UAH Space Hardware Club contributed)

“We were really happy it worked and we had data available the same day it launched,” said Ben Campbell, a master’s student in aerospace systems engineering who is TSRG’s founder and project manager.

Campbell, a graduate research assistant, said his career goal is to become an astronaut. He used his spacecraft development experience and connections to teach the team to produce the device and then to get it into space.

“At the moment, we have a large collection of raw data that was recorded by all the sensors, and we are now in the process of correlating everything together to basically produce the big picture, or life story, of what our payload experienced during the mission,” Campbell said.

“We have things worked out for the initial ascent phase of the launch, where we have clear data indicating events such as the operation of the two stages that were used on the launch vehicle, and our crossing of the Karman line – which is the boundary of space that’s about 100 kilometers above sea level – at around 114 seconds after liftoff.”

The team is studying the data from the space activity, re-entry and splash down in the Atlantic Ocean. The payload was retrieved by a boat team and is being shipped back to campus.

“The payload was essentially a small deck of electronics, about the size of a dinner plate, which hosted a suite of various sensors to monitor flight conditions throughout the mission,” Campbell said.

Victoria Tarpley solders the device while Tyler Ardrey, at left, looks on.
(UAH Space Hardware Club contributed)

Sensors onboard included:

  • accelerometers for detecting linear motion and forces on the spacecraft;
  • gyroscopes for detecting the rotation rate of the spacecraft;
  • a barometric pressure sensor for determining its altitude in the atmosphere;
  • a sensor for monitoring onboard temperature;
  • a sensor for detecting air moisture content while within the atmosphere;
  • a Geiger counter to count captured radioactive particles from space intercepted by the spacecraft.

The payload was designed for students to use a collection of systems familiar to them, such as common sensors, microcontrollers and other electrical components.

Campbell has been working for over a year on TSRG and was involved in three CubeSat programs and two sounding rocket projects as an undergraduate at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho.

“I started the group so I could try to use some connections and resources I have from my time prior to coming here to establish routine access to space for UAH to try and get us back to space,” he said. “Through that, I can use it as a way to give students here the opportunity to interact with NASA personnel and be involved in every step of spacecraft development beyond just building something and giving it to NASA, like what’s traditionally done with a lot of CubeSat projects.”

The goal is to have UAH students regularly building spacecraft and going to a NASA launch center to participate in activities like payload integration, sequence testing, vehicle assembly, launch pad prep, recovery and other activities.

The group aims to climb the levels of NASA’s student launch programs. NASA’s RockOn program is introductory suborbital spaceflight research, RockSat-C is the next level up with a larger payload size and RockSat-X is the third level, where there is maximum freedom of design and purpose. The three programs are a collaboration of the Colorado and Virginia Space Grant Consortia and NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

“With each program’s increasing intensity, the students get to become more involved with the whole process of working with NASA, up to the point where students have the capability of helping assemble and test the rocket itself,” Campbell said. “There are tons of great and capable students in the SHC that want to send things to space, and this is one way I know to make that happen.”

The team is considering future projects that include communications systems, propulsion technology, experimental avionics, geology, biology, heliophysics and atmospheric science. A mission to the moon is also being discussed.

“One of the great things about the situation we are in right now is that, depending on the nature of different experiments, we can try to combine multiple experiments onto a single flight, and if some concepts don’t get flown this coming year, we can try to pursue them a later year,” Campbell said.

“By working to establish routine access to space at UAH, Terminus will help enable future space missions supporting a wide field of research areas and help grow the technical expertise of UAH students.”

The Terminus Spaceflight Research Group is:

  • Ben Campbell; master’s student; aerospace systems engineering; Nampa, Idaho
  • Tristan Carter; senior; mechanical engineering; Haleyville
  • Peter Jay Summers; sophomore; mechanical engineering; Carmel, Ind.
  • Michaela Tarpley; senior; aerospace engineering; Roxana, Ill.
  • Victoria Tarpley; senior; mechanical engineering; Roxana, Ill.
  • David Tutunzhiu; senior; aerospace engineering; Raleigh, N.C.
  • Tyler Ardrey; senior; aerospace engineering; Fairhope
  • Matthew Bray; senior; aerospace engineering; Huntsville
  • Jared Sauer; senior; aerospace engineering; Savannah, Ga.
  • Quinn Booker; senior; mechanical engineering; Palatine, Ill.

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