Wednesday, December 10, 2014

FOXSI will launch!

The weather is looking good and there are no technical problems that we know of, so FOXSI is GO FOR LAUNCH on Thursday!

Wish us luck at exactly 12:11 pm MST...

UPDATE: we'll be posting updates the day of flight on our website at

Monday, December 8, 2014

86 Tuesday, sub Thursday -- new launch date is December 11

(Why, yes, that is restaurant in, "86 lettuce, sub tomato...")

After an intense integration process, we have everything wrapped up, staked down, and are on the rail ready for flight!

Unfortunately, the upper-atmosphere winds are not as ready as we are, so tomorrow is a no-go for launch.  Disturbances of the rocket's trajectory due to high winds could cause it to go off course.  If that happens, the rocket will be terminated, which is just as destructive as it sounds.  We don't want to take any chances, so the launch is postponed to a later date with a better weather outlook.

The new launch date will be Thursday, Dec. 11.  Wind predictions for that day are looking good, so we have high confidence that we'll be able to launch then.  Our launch window will be 11:45 to 12:30 Mountain Standard time (18:45 to 19:30 UTC).

In the meantime, two days off for the FOXSI team!  (Cue all the emails from collaborators on my other projects...)  :)  We'll take a bit of much-needed rest and perhaps see a few of the sights in the areas.  We kicked this off already by visiting the rocket museum at the range today.  And I took pictures!  Legally!

Our illustrious Principle Investigator checks out the Missile Park.

Photographs of the Missile Park by FOXSI's biggest fan, Andy!

V2 rocket in the missile museum

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Integration time

For the first couple weeks at White Sands, we were occupied with finishing up the experiment section of the payload.  This meant some late nights as we scrambled to put on the final touches!  That was our last opportunity to work with the pieces of our experiment before everything gets melded together.  Final calibrations, alignment checks, etc all had to be done while we could still get our hands on our hardware.  Afterward we started the process of putting the experiment in the rocket "skins" -- the outside shell of the rocket.  And then we began to put the experiment section together with the other subsystems (communications, guidance, power, pointing) that make up the entire payload.

This wasn't a painless process!  We stumbled across many issues here and there -- a relay that wouldn't work, a shutter door that refused open for a good long time -- but in the end we were able to get past each of these difficulties.  We're grateful to the NSROC teams, from both White Sands and Wallops, for putting in long hours to solve these problems.

That brings us up to the vibration test, which was a dramatic enough occurrence that I'll save it for another post.  (Always nice to end on a cliffhanger...!)

The FOXSI experiment in place for X-ray alignments.  Steven eyes his fancy new alignment system.

El Zorrito, our mascot, helps out by writing a bit of code...

This shutter door will open in space to expose our X-ray optics to the Sun!  The X-ray optics are behind the orange thermal blanket.

Electrical connections with other (non-experiment) sections of the payload.  This is the payload guts that you won't see when it's all put in the rocket skins.
Gently maneuvering the experiment section -- now in the rocket skins -- onto a cart using a crane.

The team after adding thermal blankets around the experiment.  It's looking more like a rocket every day!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Putting the experiment section together

Photos courtesy of NSROC!

To start with, an empty tube...
The painstaking process of installing the optics and supports.

Optics install completed; everything nestled together
The detector side -- just as complex!

Luckily, we had el zorrito to give us a hand.

Milo poses with the built-up detector side and the FOXSI mascot.

New safety rules require protective gear for working with cryogenics.  Here we wear that gear with style!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

FOXSI, round 2

Here we are, back in the desert just about two years after last leaving.  We left on a high note, with our successful first flight under our belts.  I remember leaving Las Cruces two years ago…it was more like crawling out, having used up the very last of my energy reserves packing out the truck.  But the exhilarating and ecstatic feeling I felt that day seems to have stuck around, because I could sense it immediately upon stepping foot back on the sand.

For those of you new to the blog (that's not you, Mom!), here's a bit of background.  We're testing out new Sun-observing X-ray telescopes by flying them on a rocket.  The experiment will launch on December 9 from the White Sands Missile Range and will be in space only for a few minutes before landing back in the New Mexico desert, where we'll recover the payload via helicopter.  The team arrived in New Mexico last week and we'll be staying for the next month, conducting tests and getting everything put together before the flight.

Things once again feel familiar here, with the same surroundings and many of the same faces as before.  But there are new things.  A new ground station in the Vehicle Assembly Building.  New team members, both on our side and NASA's.

And FOXSI itself is different.  I don't mean our upgrades, although those are exciting and you'll get to hear about them soon.  I'm referring to the fact that FOXSI is now a veteran.  The first time around, the payload was new, with a gazillion uncertainties, and all of the experiment team was new to rocketry.  Now, it's our second flight — we're a sophomore — and that sets the scene very differently.  There is a different level of comfort, as many of our systems are now tried and true, but there is also a different set of expectations.  For the first flight, we didn't know where to set our hopes, and we were rewarded with a happy surprise — the first focused hard X-ray image of a solar flare!  This time, we're aiming even higher, with an eye towards achieving the cleanest data possible.

Stop by over the next month to see how we progress towards this goal!  And to see photos from our first flight, check out our Google+ page.

Monday, November 12, 2012

FOXSI launch day, part III

Now that the rocket flight was over it was time for another adventurous flight, this time via helicopter.  

Rockets launched from White Sands land far uprange, about 40-60 miles (60-90 km) from the launch rail.  The payload sheds all its accessories during the flight: the two motor stages that give the payload its boost into space fall off after burnout and the nose cone (the tip of the rocket) falls away during the descent to allow the parachute to open.  These components (or what's left of them) also land somewhere in the desert.

Our mission was to find the payload, split it into two sections, and bring these back via two helicopters.  Besides the Navy helicopter pilots and photographer, there was room for four of us.  The team ended up as Ed (Wallops electrical engineer), Paul, Steven, and me (after Säm graciously turned down a seat in order to let Steven or I go).  We were warned that this could be quite strenuous work -- each of the payload sections weighs 200-300 pounds, and the landing site could be a small ravine or a difficult incline.  Luckily, FOXSI made this easy for us by picking a nice flat stretch of desert to settle on!

Even without the rollercoaster emotions of the flight and the anticipation of recovering FOXSI, the helicopter ride (my first ever!) would have been memorable.  It took about a half hour to reach the landing site, during which we were treated to a spectacular view of the desert.  200 feet below us the sand dunes and vegetation created strange geometrical patterns on the desert floor.  I was able to see for the first time how vast the famous white sands really are, the peculiar fine white gypsum powder giving the illusion of a giant salt basin.  I saw tracks that looked like lake/river beds and creeks, obviously long dried but perhaps occasionally bursting back to life during rare desert rainstorms.

And then we found FOXSI.

I am sure that the mesquite bush our payload chose to land in is the thorniest one in the desert.  It looked innocent enough, until we dove in to clip the parachute cords, and then its spines cut us at every move.  I like to think of it as sneaky little FOXSI getting in a few last jabs!

But the landing was perfect!  After FOXSI was finished observing the Sun, a shutter door closed over the telescope.  The door carries a metal honeycomb structure that acts as a crush bumper, and it is this structure that the payload lands on.  FOXSI landed on end on its crush bumper and then fell over on one side, snuggling itself into the thorny mesquite bush for us to find.  (If the parachute had not opened as expected we would have found a hole in the ground instead of a happily resting payload.)

The work was straightforward: Ed vented the compressed gas carried in the payload for fine pointing maneuvers, we unbolted the two halves of the payload and broke all the electrical connections between them, and one by one we loaded the halves onto the helicopters using the large rocket cradles we had brought with us.  We covered the open ends with large tarps taped to the rocket skins, and then we were on our way!

Except we needed a pit stop.  The payload sections were so long that they stuck out the sides of the helicopter.  The high air turbulence outside the helicopter ripped one of our protective tarps to shreds, exposing the detector end of our telescope and causing electrical connectors to fly around wildly.  We landed again in the desert and used an entire roll of heavy-duty tape to tape directly over the end of the payload, creating a protective cover.  This proved good enough to make it back to the launch complex with no further damage.

Back at the vehicle assembly building, the triage began.  We were jubilant about the success of our payload, but now was the time (with all equipment, people, and memories present and intact) to figure out what things had gone wrong.  We checked our alignment with the rocket pointing system to see if we could have been horribly off target, and found that this was unlikely.

We examined our telescopes and electronics for damage…and found a little.  One of the seven optics modules stuck out a little farther than the others.  This happened because a glue joint holding that optic in place had failed, allowing the module to move.  Of course, with any payload damage a big question is whether it was the launch or the landing (a huge shock!) that caused it.  In this case we *think* the shift happened at launch, although it's difficult to be sure.

The other optics modules all looked just fine, and the next day we did one last X-ray alignment test to check that everything was still functioning.  With the exception of the one shifted module, everything looked exactly the same as it had before the flight.  This is fantastic news, because it means we have a mostly intact payload which could be used again for future flights!

…which brings us to the big question of what's next!  FOXSI has a second flight funded, tentatively scheduled for 2014.  For that flight we have planned some upgrades to the instrument, but those plans did rely on recovering the payload in one piece (which it mostly is).

As we begin to look at the data I'll attempt to post some updates about our progress.  First, though, is a big push to finish my dissertation in time to graduate this semester!  And one more piece of exciting news -- I'm told that the official launch photos and videos are on their way to us soon.  I will post these as soon as I get them!

Thanks again for all the warm wishes and support from all our FOXSI friends!