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NASA rocket with UH experiments loses payload


    NASA successfully launched the RockSat-X education payload on a Terrier-Improved Malemute suborbital sounding rocket this morning from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virgina. The rocket flew to an altitude of 95 miles, but the payload was not recovered as planned.

NASA today said it lost the payload of a suborbital rocket carrying student experiments — including one designed by University of Hawaii students — as it returned to Earth, a rare occurrence that’s being investigated.

The 20-foot-long tube carried high-definition cameras, various gauges and antennas from eight universities and community colleges from across the country. It was launched atop a rocket from the Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague Island, Va., and reached an altitude of about 95 miles before it descended toward the Atlantic Ocean.

NASA spokesman Keith Koehler said data was received from most of the experiments during the flight. A parachute was supposed to open around 20,000 feet, but it’s unclear if that happened, he said.

Typically, such payloads float in the ocean and are spotted by aircraft before a ship recovers them, Koehler said.

“We don’t know why we couldn’t find it,” he said. “It’s a big ocean. They’re going to have go through the data and determine what happened.”

Sixteen students from Honolulu, Windward, Kapiolani and Kauai community colleges had spent the past year designing and building a small experiment package, or payload, for launch into space, as part of Wednesday’s launch. Hawaii’s payload, dubbed Project Imua, contained six different experiments and was outfitted with five microcomputers — ranging from the size of a credit card to the size of a stick of gum — and tiny cameras capable of capturing images and video.

Half of the team of students traveled to Virginia for the launch.

Project manager Joe Ciotti, a professor of physics, astronomy and mathematics at Windward Community College, said he doesn’t view the mission as a failure.

“This is real rocket science. There are great risks involved, calculated risks,” he said from Wallops. “It’s part of the field that we’re in. If you’re not willing to take risks, then you’re not an explorer.”

Ciotti said the project was “literally priceless, given the amount of ingenuity and sweat” poured in by the students. But by one financial measure, it cost the team $14,000 to “buy” a spot on the rocket.

Project Imua is funded by a two-year $500,000 grant awarded to the Hawaii NASA Space Grant Consortium by the NASA Space Grant Competitive Opportunity for Partnerships With Community Colleges and Technical Schools.

Koehler, the NASA spokesman, said payloads have been lost before, although such events are unusual. For instance, he said NASA launched some instruments to study the atmosphere from Puerto Rico in the 1990s. They weren’t recovered until five years later when they washed ashore.

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