Hopkins researchers readying for blast-off in study of early galaxy growth

Johns Hopkins University PhD students Brian Fleming, left, and Keith Redwine, right, are working on a sounding rocket which could be launched in New Mexico in the spring of 2013.
Johns Hopkins University PhD students Brian Fleming, left, and Keith Redwine, right, are working on a sounding rocket which could be launched in New Mexico in the spring of 2013. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Room 110 of Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy bears a special name on the placard outside: Rocket Room.

Inside, tiny screws, metal clamps, screwdrivers, power drills and colored zip ties cover tables and shelves, the remnants of four years of work building a 24-foot-long tube scientists will soon blast into space.

A team of doctoral students and scientists is fine-tuning a rocket payload that will carry a telescope 250 miles above the earth's atmosphere. It has to go that high for a clear glimpse of a nearby galaxy and clouds of hydrogen gas emanating from it, a hallmark of star formation.

The work extends a history of rocket-based research at Hopkins that goes back decades, this time helping to test new technology that will be a part of the James Webb Space Telescope, the eventual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The project will also contribute to growing research explaining how galaxies in the early universe expanded.

But when dealing with instruments that will zip through the sky at speeds up to Mach 8, there is room for error. The rocket was slated to be launched from the desert of New Mexico by late November or early December, but that has been pushed back, likely not until March, after testing broke a small instrument that will open tiny telescope shutters using a magnet.

Given that NASA's sounding rocket grant program, which funded the Hopkins project with $3.2 million, emphasizes scientist training and new technology, perfection isn't expected, though, said Stephan McCandliss, a scientist in the university's physics and astronomy department who is leading the project.

"They're kind of entrepreneurial, in a sense," McCandliss said of the sounding rocket projects. "Having failure not be an option gets expensive, as in the case of [the Webb telescope]. We make the mistakes so somebody else doesn't have to."

McCandliss conceived of the project in 2004, amid a previous research project, and started work on it in 2008 upon receiving funding from NASA. The grant is shared between Hopkins and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where researchers are responsible for developing the telescope "microshutters" – nearly 4,000 tiny doors across a couple of inches that can open and close to help the project's telescope narrow in on particular points of interest in space.

Sounding rockets are designed to blast high enough that they escape the earth's atmosphere, but not so high that they enter orbit, falling back to earth. As the team's rocket reaches its peak in the skies over the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, it will spend a total of about 400 seconds – just shy of 7 minutes – at an altitude where it can get an unobstructed view of space.

A gyroscope will help point the telescope in the right direction while it captures nearby galaxies for signs of hydrogen escaping. That escape, McCandliss said, is "something of a mystery" and could help explain how early star clusters and galaxies formed.

The telescope will capture images in both visible light and through spectroscopy, detecting the excess hydrogen's ultraviolet radiation, and will use only two mirrors instead of three as in many other telescopes, McCandliss said. Along with a special filter that helps isolate bands of light, the telescope will allow for the amount of light to be increased by five to six times relative to similar projects, something that helped attract the NASA funding, he said.

Aside from the science, the sounding rocket project and others like it are valued for developing a new generation of space scientists. A handful of physics and engineering Ph.D. students and some undergraduates will participate in the project from start to finish.

For graduate students like Keith Redwine, in his third year at Hopkins, the hands-on nature of the small team of researchers attracted him to the project. While some of his classmates are members of research teams hundreds strong, focusing on a narrow aspect of a project, Redwine said he will get a hand in all aspects of the rocket's development, launch and analysis.

For colleague Brian Fleming, the launch could be a culmination of six years of studies at Hopkins if it doesn't get delayed further.

"I really want to see it go," Fleming said. "Six years of work just to run off doesn't sound so fun."

Whether he is there to see it or not, the launch will be part of a long history of space exploration at Hopkins. The university's sounding rocket research program has conducted 79 launches since 1961. If the telescope the researchers are fine-tuning survives its launch, it could be used again in future experiments.

Among the earlier launches were projects to explore heavenly bodies like the Comet Hale-Bopp and the Dumbbell Nebula, during an era that Hopkins professor Paul D. Feldman called a "golden age in space science." As the space program evolves, projects like the current one offer opportunities to collect even more data than those early experiments, he said.

"It's really a groundbreaking approach to look at galaxies," Feldman said.



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