How to Launch a NASA Sounding Rocket

Go behind the scenes of NASA’s first commercial sounding rocket launches in Australia

Arnhem Rocket Range (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

In 2022, NASA launched three sounding rockets from a new commercial range in northern Australia. The rockets, which carry scientific instruments briefly into space, took measurements in space that couldn’t be made from the Northern Hemisphere.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to launch and recover the rockets.

Aerial View of Yolngu Lands (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

The rockets launched from Northern Australia on the traditional lands of the Yolngu who have taken care of this land since time immemorial.

Rainbow Bee-Eater (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

Along with the Yolngu, the area’s tropical savanna landscape has long been home to crocodiles, dingoes, wallabies, and more. 

The Arnhem Space Center (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

For a period in 2022, it was also host to three NASA sounding rockets and a team of scientists and engineers supporting their launch from a new commercial launch range called the Arnhem Space Center, which was created in partnership by the Yolngu and Equatorial Launch Australia.

Rocket Launch Rail (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

The NASA team brought everything needed to launch their rockets – including a launch platform – which took several months to set up. 

Preparing the Payload (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

The sounding rockets, each over 40 feet long, were transported by cargo plane in pieces and reassembled on location.

The portion of the rocket where all the scientific instruments are housed is called the payload.

Testing the Payload (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

After assembly, the payload is tested to make sure everything still functions properly after its long voyage around the world from the United States to Australia. 

Getting Ready for Launch (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

Once all the pieces were tested, the payload was connected to two motors and mounted on the launcher designed to lift the entire sounding rocket into space.

Rocket Motors (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

During its flight, the rocket would spend less than a half hour aloft, reaching over 700 miles above Earth before falling back to the ground.

Ready for Launch (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

As night fell, the rocket was lifted and readied. The team waited for the winds to die down so the rocket wouldn’t be blown off course.

When the weather conditions were just right, the rocket was launched into space at speeds exceeding Mach 6, or 4,300 miles per hour – six times the speed of sound.

Scientists Looking at Sounding Rocket Data (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

Less than a minute after launch, scientists got their first look at the data they’d spent years preparing to collect. They were ecstatic as the readings poured in. The data will help identify sources of mysterious X-ray light from the inner parts of our galaxy. 

Pilot Flying Helicopter (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

The following day, the recovery team traveled by helicopter to search for and pick up the pieces of the rocket, which landed within a few hundred miles of the launch site.

Aerial View of Yolngu Lands (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

They were on the search for four main parts that become uncoupled during flight: the payload, the two spent motors, and the nosecone. Using math, maps, and experience, the team had a pretty good idea of where each landed. 

Mimal Ranger Looking for Rocket Parts (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

Flying in ever widening circles from the suspected landing zone, the recovery team kept their eyes open for the rocket pieces. Yolngu land management rangers, who have extensive knowledge of the area, assisted with the recovery.

Payload and Parachute (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

Sometimes the rocket pieces can be hard to spot, but the payload, with its telltale white and orange parachute, was found quickly. 

Recovering the Payload (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

Once on the ground, the recovery team worked to detach the parachute and connect the payload to the helicopter so it could be returned to the scientists. In addition to providing valuable calibration data, the payloads can be reflown for several missions. 

Cleaning Up the Rocket Landing Site (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

After the rocket pieces were removed, the team carefully cleaned the site, filling in the impact crater left by each piece and replacing disturbed brush so the area looked almost as if it had never been touched by a rocket. 

Payload Returns Home (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

Back at the launch site, the payload was wheeled to the main building to be disassembled. The scientists removed the data hard drives and ran final tests to ensure the data was calibrated. 

Night Sky over Australia (2022-07-11) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Mara Johnson-GrohNASA

With the data in hand, the scientists could finally analyze the observations in full to uncover new revelations about our universe. 

Credits: Story

Author: Mara Johnson-Groh
Editors: Abbey Interrante and Vanessa Thomas


Credit Images
NASA/Mara Johnson-Groh

Additional Info:
Watch High Above Down Under, a six-part series following two of the Australian sounding rocket missions.
Learn more about sounding rockets here.
Learn more about the DEUCE and SISTINE missions here.
Learn more about the XQC mission here.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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