By Ned Rozell
POKER FLAT RESEARCH RANGE - In preparation for the launch of a complex aurora penetrating rocket early next year, NASA engineers and technicians are here installing a nine-meter antenna that had a former life on the deck of a Navy ship.
Chuck Grant is a systems engineer with NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. His job is to make sure the dish as tall as a house is installed properly at the research range, about 30 miles north of Fairbanks. The telemetry-receiving antenna performed in the past on the USNS Redstone and in the Utah desert at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground.
On a blue-sky summer morning, Grant gave a tour of the standing antenna near its base of fresh concrete. Aurora scientists will use the antenna next winter to track a moving rocket and receive the hundreds of radio-frequency messages it sends back during its arc from Poker Flat through the aurora zone more than 350 miles over our heads.
"This rocket has seven pieces to track," Grant said. "We'll have six antennas, including this one, tracking those seven pieces. We get one chance to get as much information as we can, so we use as many antennas as possible to give scientists the data they need."
In the flight time of less than 20 minutes, the rocket will send back real-time information on the properties of the aurora scientists are measuring along with how the rocket is working, where it is, and dozens of other variables. Charles Swenson of Utah State University is the head of the rocket mission, to be launched from Poker Flat in late January or early February 2014. It is one of two sounding-rocket campaigns scheduled for Poker Flat next year.
"This mission accelerated the installation schedule," said Grant, who came to Alaska June 24 and expects to be here through September, by which time the antenna will be ready to track rockets. The new-to-Poker-Flat nine-meter antenna is now the second former USNS Redstone antenna on the hilltop at Poker Flat. Grant, who flies to faraway places such as Sweden, Australia and the Marshall Islands to support NASA's Sounding Rocket program, has a history with this one. In the 1990s, he helped with its installation at the Dugway Proving Ground.
"In Utah, I put this in," Grant said. "I took it out of Utah. It's an old friend."
PHOTO CAPTION/CREDIT: NASA Systems Engineer Chuck Grant stands near a rocket-telemetry antenna he is helping to install on a hilltop at Poker Flat Research Range. Photo by N. Rozell.