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Atomic Aggies rocket payload rides NASA rocket 70 miles above the Earth


A payload experiment from New Mexico State University’s Atomic Aggies flew nearly 70 miles above Earth on NASA’s Terrier-Improved Orion sounding rocket as part of the RockOn! mission.

 The New Mexico Space Grant Consortium (NMSGC) invited the Atomic Aggies – which NMSU describes as “an accomplished team of students that design, build and enter competition with their high-powered rockets” – to participate in the mission, which was sponsored by the Colorado Space Grant Consortium and NASA. The mission was part of the first-ever virtual rocket-building workshops with more than 100 participants.

 Aerospace engineering student and Atomic Aggies student advisor Anita Jimenez said she and her team members took on the challenge after having the 2020 Spaceport America Cup canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 “Last summer when the pandemic hit, we kept building the 2020 payload, getting it ready for launch and it was very much kind of the same concept,” Jimenez said. “We essentially got the band back together and built two more payload experiments.”

The two-phase mission launched the rocket with student experiments in June and will launch additional experiments on a high-altitude balloon in September. Seventy experiments from university students across the country were selected for either the sounding rocket or the high-altitude balloon.

 Jimenez and her team were lucky to have one payload in each launch because the selection was made randomly. She explained it was the best-case scenario for the team. After the launch from the Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, the payloads were sent back to students to retrieve the rocket data.

 “We get to compare the data from the balloon and the rocket, as long as it survives the flight recovery because it does get in the ocean,” Jimenez said. “We wanted to get our payload on the rocket because of its altitude of over 68 miles and the G forces it will reach. We can also compare the NASA rocket data with one of our own student-built rockets.”

Although participating in the RockOn! project meant extra work, Jimenez said it was worth it to gain important hands-on experience in payload building and integration.

“Being able to hold the payload that we built and worked with, just realizing that it went 69 miles above Earth, collected data and came back to us in one piece, is truly special,” Jimenez said. “It shows you what you can do when you just take a chance with a project like this.”

NMSGC Director Paulo Oemig said missions like these are important to prepare university students for real-world scenarios in their fields.

“In conversations with federal agencies and people from the private sector, they all express the same thing: there is a disconnect between students’ academic preparation and the skills and experience required in a knowledge economy,” Oemig said. “Anita and her team build upon the skills required in the private sector by going through the whole process from grant application, budget justification, payload conception and integration, deployment and recovery and analysis and reporting.”

 After the balloon launch in September, Jimenez and the team will compare data from their own rocket launches and NASA's launches.

“It has been an incredible opportunity,” Jimenez said.

 A video of the launch can be watched here at www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1mT8Xh0zUE.

 Contact Anita Jimenez at anjmnz@nmsu.edu and Paulo Oemig at poemig@nmsu.edu. Visit mas.nmsu.edu/project/16602.

New Mexico State University, Atomic Aggies