Wednesday, June 13, 2012

NuSTAR - Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array

I haven't written much about any of the work that goes on here, because quite frankly I can't.  Most of it isn't exactly classified, but it's not stuff that they'd really like to be spreading around the internet.

So when we DO get something going on that we can talk about, it's a lot of fun.  A few days ago, the launch aircraft and rocket carrying NASA's NuSTAR satellite landed here, to prep for a launch in . . . oh, about four hours from when I'm writing this post.

Unlike the military launches we do, NASA took the approach of "Sure, come look at all the cool stuff we're doing!  Bring your camera!"

Man, maybe I should have gone to college.

Orbital is a private launch company that NASA has contracted with to boost their stuff up into low earth orbit.  Rather than using a large, expensive and heavy booster rocket to get the payload and upper stages off the ground, Orbital straps a rocket with a tiny wing onto the bottom of a Lockheed L-1011, flies it up to about 40,000 feet, then drops the rocket.  A few seconds after the drop, the motor ignites, and off it goes!  Sadly, the launch is taking place at night a hundred-something miles south of us, so we won't be able to see the details, but they've got a breakdown of their processon their website:

They had a number of their engineers and scientists around to guide the groups, answer questions and give info on how the whole thing worked.  I did ask, and they do indeed get to put "Rocket Scientist" on their business cards.  Which has got to be the most sure-fire way of picking up nerd girls ever.

This man has to fight off cute doctoral students with a stick

The business end of it all!

I enjoy how they cut a slit in the bottom of the aircraft to fit the tail fin
I am a grown-up who has a grown-up job and does grown-up things


Once we wandered around the outside and looked at all the things that we're not allowed to touch, we went up inside the aircraft.  Save for what remained of the first-class section (now filled with computery stuff), there wasn't much in there.

I really want them to put a slip-n-slide in here.

I asked one of the pilots how close to the max take-off weight they were with the rocket attached, and he said it wasn't even close.  The launch weight of the rocket was only about 50,000lbs, and they burned 110,000 of fuel just flying the airplane to Kwaj.  So not a big deal, although when the aircraft rotates for take-off there is only 14 inches of clearance between the rocket's tail fins and the runway.  And upon release, the aircraft lurches upwards about 1400 feet in altitude and switches abruptly from being very tail-heavy, to nose-heavy.

He's the one that gets to push the launch button, which makes him the kid who always had cooler toys than you.

It's always amused me to see the little bit of humanness behind these big expensive projects.  I find something very entertaining in seeing a multi-million dollar satellite attached to a rocket about to be shot into space, while the people running it all are fueled by a cheap-ass coffee maker, sitting on folding tables and lawn furniture.  I would think rocket scientists are at least worthy of . . . I don't know, one of those fancy K-cup coffee makers or something.  Maybe even their own on-board barrista.

Only the finest will do.

Up front where first-class used to be, most of the seats have been ripped out and replaced with expensive computers that do many, many things.

According to the rules of electronics that I've just made up, the importance of a doohicky is directly proportional to the number of blinky lights and toggle switches.  This machine must be very important.

I somehow resisted the urge to mutter in a robotic voice "WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME?"  (If you don't get the joke, watch more 1970s nerd movies) 

Simulated third stage burn.  Note the expected velocity; 11,000mph.
I DON'T KNOW WHAT ANY OF THESE THINGS MEAN.  But when I have my souper-seekrit evil villain lair, it's going to be full of screens like this one.
 I figured that NASA being NASA, or at least rocket scientists being rocket scientists, they would have some kind of obscenely complex and fail-proof safety system to prevent anyone from accidentally pushing a button that would make the big roman candle underneath us do bad things.  I was correct: they are utilizing the time-tested system of a bit of red tape and a post-it.

Moving up to the cockpit, they . . . well, yeah.

The things that are awesome when you're 8 years old are still awesome when you're 28 years old.
The launch button was a bit anti-climactic considering the scale of everything else.  I wanted some giant yellow and red striped button with two keys that you had to turn at the exact same time and a big motorized titanium cover that required voice authentication from the pilot, a rocket scientist, and the president of Nigeria. 

I have no idea what the orange thing does.  I should have asked.
By the time you're reading this, the satellite will be spinning around the planet at an altitude of about 600 miles, hunting down black holes (seriously) and doing all sorts of other sciencey things.  In space.  It's in outer space right now.  Something I looked at in person is now in outer space. *nerdgasm*

Unless the rocket blew up on launch or something, in which case I swear I didn't push any of the "DO NOT PUSH THIS" buttons.