Hopkins rocket hits pay dirt Experiment: Scientists sent a delicate instrument streaking into the gases around Comet Hale-Bopp to learn more about the origins of the universe.

April 07, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

WHITE SANDS, N.M. — A photo caption in Monday's Maryland section mistakenly reversed the identifications of two Johns Hopkins scientists involved in a rocket launch in New Mexico. Above, Eric Burgh is on the left and rocket controller Jason McPhate is on the right.

The Sun regrets the errors.

WHITE SANDS, N.M. -- The little rocket ignited like a white flare and leaped into the night sky above the White Sands Missile Range.

In seconds, even as its roar was reaching observers miles away, the rocket had vanished from sight. About 2 1/2 minutes later, it was 200 miles in space -- straight up -- sending back chemical analyses of the gas surrounding Comet Hale-Bopp.


On the receiving end Saturday, standing two miles from the launch pad in a crowded cinder-block control room, was an exuberant group of blue-jeaned scientists from the Johns Hopkins University.

"Wow! There it is! Oxygen, carbon, sulfur. I've got everything," said Dr. Paul D. Feldman, 57, principal investigator, as the first data popped onto his computer screen.

Beside him, graduate student Eric Burgh, 23, read out key data as they arrived, and Jason McPhate, 28, steadied a computer track ball to hold the comet squarely in the cross hairs of the spacecraft's telescope.

McPhate snatched a quick look at the data on Feldman's screen, and shouted, "Oh, what a gorgeous spectrum."

Fifteen minutes after launch, their high-flying telescope and spectrograph had parachuted back onto the desert 50 miles away, and the Hopkins scientists joined members of their White Sands support crew in a celebratory taste of mescal in foam cups.

"It worked great," said McPhate, breathing a sigh of relief that he was able to steer the telescope toward the comet so quickly, capturing a full six minutes of data. "I wish they were all like this."

To scientists, comets are changeless chemical messengers. They reveal not only their own makeup, but also the chemistry and physical conditions that prevailed across the solar system at the time the sun, planets and comets were forming 4.6 billion years ago.

Astronomers also want to see how closely the chemistry of comets and the early solar system matches the chemistry observed in molecular clouds and condensing star systems elsewhere in the galaxy.

Finally, they believe, the chemical recipe for comets may hold clues to the origins of water and organic chemicals on Earth, which may in turn have led to life here and elsewhere in the universe.

The Hopkins experiment was the third of four sponsored by NASA's low-profile sounding rocket program to observe Comet Hale-Bopp. Two, developed by scientists at the University of Colorado and the Southwest Research Institute, were launched successfully from White Sands late last month.

The fourth, developed by the University of Wisconsin, had been delayed by technical problems. It was rescheduled to fly tonight.

The sounding rocket program is space science in a pea pod.

Each of the Hale-Bopp projects cost $1 million -- tiny by National Aeronautics and Space Administration standards. The entire Hopkins experiment was proposed, built and tested in just eight months, using a 20-year-old telescope fitted with a new mirror and a new spectrograph built at Hopkins.

Last month, it was mated to a Navy-surplus Terrier booster rocket and an off-the-shelf Canadian Black Brant rocket as the second-stage motor.

"This is really great science. It's cheap and it's quick and the scientists love it," said Eric Veed, a White Sands command system engineer employed by Lockheed Martin Corp. "You can do 500 of these or more for the cost of one shuttle payload."

Hopkins technician Russ Pelton, 43, has helped build and fly 13 of Hopkins' sounding rocket experiments. "I would say 10 of them worked perfectly," he said as he carved into a steak at a preflight barbecue on the missile range Saturday.

Other times, a graduate student's assumptions have gone awry, or a power supply has failed, once with fatal effects on a student's dissertation.

So be it, said Veed. "You have to have a training ground. You can't design a satellite instrument without putting it on a rocket and testing it."

Sprawling lake bed

The Army's White Sands Missile Range, created in 1945 to test captured German V-2 rockets and build America's early rocket technology, seems like the perfect place for this kind of program.

Forty miles wide and 100 miles long, it is bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It sprawls across the Tularosa basin, between the San Andres and Sacramento mountains. The flat, ancient lake bed is covered by sagebrush, yucca and white gypsum sand dunes, and populated mostly by coyotes and jack rabbits.

Scattered across the basin are dozens of concrete blockhouses, towering antennas, rocket gantries and a profusion of weathered buildings of gray corrugated steel or painted a desert tan.

The blockhouse at Launch Complex 36, used Saturday night, looks nothing like NASA's made-for-TV Mission Control centers.

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