For this Charleston native, it is rocket science
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Aspirations of becoming a rocket scientist came to fruition for one Charleston native when he recently helped launch a rocket about 200 miles in the air — just above the Earth's atmosphere.
Kevin France, who now lives in Boulder, Colo., was the principal investigator of a University of Colorado team that launched a 60-foot rocket into flight for about 15 minutes.
"The science on this particular rocket was studying the tenuous material between the stars in our Milky Way galaxy — so gas, dust, anything that's not stars that makes up the Milky Way," he said.
"What we're studying in particular is the clouds of gas and dust that will become the next generation of stars and planets and eventually people."
The University of Colorado at Boulder participates in a NASA grant program that lets the school explore science, develop technology and train students.
France's team was made up of one graduate student and three engineers who originally joined the team as undergraduate research assistants who helped design and fabricate the telescope. In addition, they were in charge of the electronics that read the data and sent it back down to Earth.
Researchers are studying ultraviolet light, which doesn't get through the Earth's atmosphere. The light can provide insight into the way the universe was made, said France, 35.
To observe the light, his team put an instrument above the Earth's atmosphere — the rocket.
It was a suborbital rocket, meaning it went up and came down rather than circled. It gathered information via a spectroscopy prism that studies distribution of colors. That helped them measure the composition of matter in space — such as its temperature and movement.
The electronics within the rocket relayed information to a radio tracking station on Earth via a telemetry system.
With help from NASA, the group worked to assure the instruments communicated. The Navy provided the actual rocket motors. The rocket landed about 55 miles uprange of the launch pad, and an Army reconnaissance team helped retrieve it.
"We get the information in real time. The student controls the rocket — he sends commands up to the rocket, moves it around to make the observation to point at the star we're looking at, and data is sent back down," France said.
Students then work on interpreting the data and submit a research paper to peer-reviewed journals.
France hopes the information can be used in a graduate student's dissertation and on larger missions in the future. So far, the results look "spectacular," he said.
"Our observations are fundamentally new. We put it in context with what's known in our galaxy. We can make some new measurements of interstellar molecular temperatures," he said.
France's wife and Charleston Catholic High School sweetheart, Emily Calwell France, and both sides of their immediate families came to watch the launch in New Mexico.
"We were all together for the launch — it was really special for our family," said Emily. "I can't wait for the next one — they're already working on the next one, so we'll have lots of launches to come.
"It's really amazing to watch. It's such a dramatic scene because it was 2:30 in the morning and in the absolute desert. There's just nothing but the desert sky with brilliant stars.
"At first you just see this brilliant flash of light that lights up the whole desert. It's silent at first because the sound hasn't gotten to you yet. Then all of a sudden you feel this huge boom, and you can see it ascend into the sky for quite a while. That was just stunning. It was really beautiful."
Only a handful of programs in the country receive funding from NASA to develop science and technology in the form of rockets.
Kevin pursued the University of Colorado for that reason. Emily said the long buildup to the launch was worth it.
"It's been a while — getting his Ph.D. and working in the field. This was his first rocket that he was the principal investigator, the guy in charge. And it was just so exciting to get to see that."
For more information on Kevin France, visit http://cos.colorado.edu/~kevinf.
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