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Rocket Science

On November 18th 1999, Rhode Island hosted the first launching of a rocket into space from right here in Charlestown. An attempt named Project Comet Chase was made to intercept the dust trail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle (the source of the bright Leonid Meteors). As many of you know the rocket was lost when the U.S. Coast Guard vessel assigned to retrieve the rocket had to respond to a distress call. Early in May the lower portion of the rocket (the booster) was brought up in a fishing net. This has spurred hope that we may yet find and retrieve the payload. Since the payload is sealed, it may very well be in excellent condition.

On May 23, 2001 the launching site was dedicated as "Spaceport Rhode Island". In a ceremony attended by representatives of many of the organizations who sponsored Project Comet Chaser. A monument consisting of a large granite boulder with an attached brass plate now sits at precisely the point where the rocket was launched. As the meeting wrapped up, the attendees felt that there should be some sort of a place where the rocket casing could be put on display. Several suggestions were made but people quickly came to the conclusion that it would be best if the rocket remained near the site of the launching along with other materials.

As fate would have it, the very nearest building to the launch site is the dome of the Frosty Drew Observatory. The Observatory had been a part of the original activities with simulations using planetarium programs of the encounter of Comet Tempel-Tuttle with the orbit of Earth. We showed the comet moving in three dimensions along with the planets of the inner solar system. One particularly exciting scenario showed the students what it would have been like to sit on the head of the comet as it raced in towards the Sun. It starts well above the plane of the planets and then just as the encounter occurs it dives through the plane to a point below the major planets. It was very dramatic and a very effective way to let students see what the real event must be like just above their heads.

Since the Observatory was a Project Comet Chaser event, the attendees felt that Frosty Drew was the logical place to keep the rocket casing and other display material. We are trying to collect video tapes of the launching which we hope to be able to show to visitors. Currently we are merely storing the rocket but we will put it in a more accessible display as soon as we can. If and when we renovate the Nature Center, we will give the rocket and materials a place of prominence.

Currently the rocket is encrusted with a variety of small mollusks. The mollusks, scratches and dents are being left intact not only for historical but scientific research. There is some reason to believe that the pits and scars on the nose of the rocket may contain micro meteorites from the tail of the comet. Any cleaning would destroy this material if it exists.

We expect a team from Brown University to examine the rocket in detail before any attempt is made to make the rocket casing more presentable. While we hope to recover the payload intact and to find it has captured pristine comet dust particles, we do not want to disturb any collected cometary debris. Even if nothing more comes of this event, it was an exciting and important event for many students from elementary to post graduate levels. It is certainly reasonable to expect that one or more students may have chosen a life in the sciences because of their participation in the event.

The big event in the skies above our heads is the close passage of Earth as it overtakes Mars. This is the last major "tune up" for the August 2003 passage when Mars will be closer to the Earth than any time for many hundreds of years in either direction. We are trying to get enough good weather to finally capture Deimos, the very dim moon of Mars. While Mars' other moon Phobos is usually the harder one to spot (because it hugs Mars so closely), the usually easier Deimos has been our biggest challenge. On clear steady viewing nights, we'll be able to see the polar "ice" caps of Mars, the light colored plains and the darker mountainous and cratered regions. Seeing all of the surface of Mars is a challenge as well because Mars and Earth have very similar length days. So the region of Mars we see on one night is very similar to what we will see the next night. It takes weeks of viewing to see all sides.

Leslie Coleman
Author:
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Jun 1, 2001
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Columns
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