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NEWS | Dec. 13, 2023

After Boosting Launch Capacity, White Sands Naval Detachment Blasts Off 3 Rockets to Study Solar Eclipse

By Tom McMahon Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division

As the widely watched annular solar eclipse passed over New Mexico on Oct. 14, the naval detachment at White Sands Missile Range pulled off its own spectacle — launching three rockets into space in just over an hour to capture scientific data on the eclipse.

The mission marked the first time that Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD)’s White Sands Detachment has blasted off three sounding rockets in close succession — a feat enabled by the recent expansion of its launch site, which now offers increased capacity for future rocket launches and missile tests.

The eclipse launches also attracted a large audience online and in person, the latter of which included local high school students as well as senior Navy officials.

“This was a grand slam,” said Ray Watson, program manager for Launch Complex 36. “We got all three rockets off on time, and the payloads all delivered good data.”

Launch Complex 36, which lies on the southern end of the 3,200-square-mile White Sands Missile Range in the southern New Mexico desert, houses White Sands Detachment personnel who build and blast off rockets primarily for scientific research.

The eclipse mission was for NASA and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, along with co-investigators from other universities and the Air Force Research Laboratory. Their goal, according to a mission fact sheet, was to study the effects of an eclipse on Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Embry-Riddle Professor Aroh Barjatya, principal investigator on the mission and director of the university’s Space and Atmospheric Instrumentation Lab, said that the research team got what it was looking for from the “successful triple launch” and recovery of the payloads, with more work ahead.

“Over the next few months, as we slowly process the large amount of data, we expect great science to come out of this mission,” Barjatya said.

Ring of fire
An annular — or ring-shaped — solar eclipse occurs when the moon aligns with the sun while the former is at or near the farthest point from Earth in its elliptical orbit. At that greater distance, the moon appears smaller and doesn’t completely block the sun, as a total eclipse does. The visual effect of this partial eclipse is a black spot surrounded by a bright circle, often described as a ring of fire.

The NASA study that Barjatya is leading, titled Atmospheric Perturbations around Eclipse Path (APEP), aims to examine changes in the ionosphere during an eclipse. In the ionosphere, which ranges from roughly 50 to 400 miles above Earth, solar radiation ionizes gases, stripping molecules of their electrons and creating a sea of electrically charged particles in a state of matter called plasma.

During an eclipse, the temporary shielding of solar radiation sends waves, or perturbations, through that sea as ions and electrons rapidly recombine. Barjatya said there’s a need to better understand how these perturbations affect satellite communications and other signals that pass through the ionosphere.

“It is important to see if, and how, this quick removal and reinstatement of plasma production in the ionosphere results in small-scale perturbations that can impact radio frequency communication and geolocation signals,” Barjatya said.

The APEP researchers sought to capture data in the ionosphere before, during and after the peak of an eclipse. To do that, they turned to NSWC PHD’s White Sands Detachment, which has decades of experience launching sounding rockets — and happened to be in the path of this year’s annular eclipse.

Boosting capacity
Sounding rockets, one of White Sands Detachment’s areas of expertise, carry scientific instruments to take measurements during suborbital flights, in which they soar through space for about eight to 10 minutes before descending back to Earth. The internationally recognized boundary of space, known as the Karman line, is at an altitude of 62 miles — within the ionosphere.

As of earlier this year, White Sands Detachment had one operational rocket launcher at Launch Complex 36. The researchers’ desire to launch three sounding rockets for the annular eclipse coincided with the detachment’s plans to boost the capabilities of the complex. Specifically, the detachment sought to have as many as five launch rails available for customers who want to fire off multiple rockets in a short period of time, and the eclipse project accelerated that effort.

Over the past nine months, White Sands Detachment worked with NASA to add three more launchers and supporting infrastructure to Launch Complex 36. About a dozen White Sands personnel worked on the project, including team members from the engineering support services and test resources branches, along with Watson.

Among the many tasks were ordering parts, building new launch pads, installing electronics, anchoring pedestals, assembling and aligning equipment, and getting NASA’s certification for the launchers.

“A lot of hard work went in this,” Watson said.

The key upgrades are a refurbished 4K3 dual-arm launcher, a refurbished 50K launcher and a 20K medium mobile launcher. The K with the numbers refers to how many thousands of pounds the launchers can accommodate. For example, the 50K launcher supports several rocket configurations with a maximum design load of 50,000 pounds. The dual-arm launcher can fire off two smaller rockets, with a combined load of 4,300 pounds.

Those new additions joined White Sands Detachment’s existing 25K Athena launcher. In all, the four launchers have a total of five launch rails, which are the ladder-like structures that position rockets for liftoff. The enhanced capacity at Launch Complex 36 expands the possibilities for sounding rocket missions and ballistic missile defense test events.

“Increasing our launch capability allows us to provide simultaneous launches for NASA as well as multiple threat-representative targets for other customers, which you can’t really do anywhere else,” Watson said.

For the annular eclipse mission, White Sands Detachment tapped three launchers — one for each rocket.

Triple play
The three sounding rockets that launched for the eclipse were two-stage vehicles, each about 53 feet tall. A first-stage Terrier Mark 70 motor and a second-stage Black Brant Mark 4 motor propelled a roughly 950-pound payload of scientific instruments topped by a nosecone.

The first rocket lifted off 35 minutes before the peak of the annular eclipse. The second launched during the peak, and the third took flight 35 minutes later. They all soared to an altitude of 215 miles.

In the ionosphere, each rocket’s payload ejected a so-called swarm of small instruments equipped with sensors, which collected data for about seven minutes and transmitted it back to the range. Barjatya said that the multiple instruments helped measure the ionosphere along five suborbital parabolic paths.

“This was essentially equivalent to launching five rockets,” he said.

A few miles away from the launch site, an audience of about 200 had gathered to watch the rockets and the eclipse from the missile park just inside the entrance to White Sands Missile Range. These onlookers included White Sands personnel and family members, along with a group of high school students from nearby Las Cruces.

Online viewers could also catch the action at White Sands. The launches were livestreamed on NASA TV’s Wallops channel — Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia is another hub for sounding rocket missions. Meanwhile, NASA TV’s broader coverage of the annular eclipse — which racked up more than 8 million views on YouTube — also cut to White Sands as one of the sounding rockets launched.

The broad reach of the eclipse launches supported White Sands Detachment’s outreach efforts, which include promoting science, technology, engineering and math career paths for local students. Because the sounding rocket launches are unclassified, Watson said they provide a prime opportunity to engage the public.

“We want the community to know what we’re doing here,” he said. “The more we can do that, the more recruits we can bring in to get suborbital vehicle experience as interns or technicians straight out of college. That’s a huge career builder.”

After the eclipse rockets soared into space and the payloads collected data in the ionosphere, they parachuted to the desert floor about 50 miles up the range from the launch site. The next task was to recover them.

Recovery efforts
Even after a 14-hour workday to execute the rocket launches, which took place on a Saturday, Watson and other White Sands personnel were back at the range early Sunday morning to track down the payloads.

With Watson driving in his truck and others flying in an Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, they found the three payloads. One of them had landed close to the road that runs up the range. The other two had come down in rugged terrain far from the road.

The rocket motors landed near their payloads, but the range’s explosive ordnance disposal team recovers and recycles the motors.

Each of the long, cylindrical payloads weighed about 700 pounds after having ejected the instruments and some other components, so moving them was no small feat. To recover the two that had landed far from the road, the team attached a sling from the helicopter to the parachute rigging on the payload, then the helicopter hoisted it over to the road. There, Watson and others prepared the payloads for transport and rolled them into cradles, then lifted them into the helicopter.

The helicopter could only fit two of the payloads at a time, so they flew the first two back to Launch Complex 36, refueled and then went back up range for the third.

“We wanted to get the payloads back to the scientists as soon as possible so they could go home,” Watson said.

Barjatya said he was impressed by White Sands Detachment’s ability to ramp up its launch capacity in a short amount of time, as well as its successful execution of the three rocket launches.

“The partnership between NASA and the Navy has been just incredible,” he said.

Now Barjatya and his fellow APEP researchers have their sights set on another eclipse. They plan to refurbish the payloads from the White Sands flights and again launch them on rockets into the ionosphere — this time from Wallops Flight Facility, close to the path of a total solar eclipse on April 8. The goal will be to further their research by collecting more data in the rippling sea of ions.

“The launches from White Sands Missile Range in October and from Wallops Flight Facility in April will help us compare impacts from an annular eclipse versus a total eclipse,” Barjatya said.