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Introduction to Rocketry

"Sounding rockets, along with scientific balloons, are a relatively cheap and fast way of getting detailed observations. They are particularly useful for research in the far ultraviolet, X-ray or gamma and infrared, as they travel above the atmosphere and eliminate the problem of atmospheric opacity in these wavebands. They follow a parabolic flight trajectory, spending approximately five minutes above the atmosphere before falling back to Earth. They have a parachute attached to enable researchers to recover their payload."

(Taken from the Educational Guide to Space).



The involvement of the Department of Physics and Astronomy in major space missions began with work developing instruments for Sounding Rocket flights. Starting in 1961, the Department has flown instruments on almost 70 sounding rockets, in programmes conducted by NASA and ESA, as well as in the British Skylark programme which was at its peak during the 1960's and 70's. (For more information on the Skylark programme, got to "The Skylark Rocket"). The majority of these instruments have been concerned with observations of astronomical objects at Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths. Our most recent sounding rocket success was the flight of the high-resolution J-PEX ultraviolet spectrometer, for which the Department provided a microchannel plate imaging detector, as well as the capability to analyse and interpret the data obtained during the flight. The 2001 mission provided new information about the nature of hot white dwarf stars, and the spectrum recorded by the instrument is the highest resolution Extreme Ultraviolet spectrum of any astronomical object obtained to date. Successful flights such as this are used to prove the capabilities of instruments which may then be adapted for much larger orbiting spacecraft; indeed, the design of the detector for the highly successful Wide Field Camera onboard ROSAT was proved in this way. A NASA Black Brant sounding rocket is shown on the left.


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