News Archive

STIG B-III Mission Report

STIG B-III mission, January 5, 2013

update by Neil Milburn, posted 02/28/2013

I know that it is a rather trivial issue in the grand scheme of things, but the border crossing at the New Mexico Port of entry was the smoothest yet; 10 min. from wheel stop to wheels rolling. Again, our two-day launch preparation protocol served its purpose because the cold weather delayed our dry run until the second day. We had a little snow, ice, and fog throughout the launch. We also had subfreezing temperatures which cause problems with battery charging, something that needs a more permanent solution for future launches.

This was our third licensed launch with STIG B and our sixth total for the STIG class of vehicles. This together with all the wet dress, tie-down, hot-fire tests at Caddo Mills, the upgraded vehicle handling equipment and modifications to the launch control trailer has made the process of preparing the vehicle, integrating payloads and launching a very fast routine. This would prove to hold us in good stead as launch time approached!

Wednesday night it had lightly snowed in Las Cruces but as we headed north to Truth or Consequences with the vehicle trailer, we discovered that the snow had not made it to the launch site at all … but it was very cold. The trip to the southern vertical launch area via Truth or Consequences takes just over two hours but is the only feasible route until the southern access road is improved. That will ultimately take an hour off the trip.

The routine now is that the launch control trailer and the crane truck station beside the launch pad until the team arrives in the crew van by the southern route. The launch stand and any other equipment required to set up pad operations are dropped there before the trailer is pulled in a straight line to a point just the other side of the dirt access road with the rear door of the trailer facing the launch pad. Dropping the trailer rear door now allows the four-wheeler and the rocket trailer to be hauled outside directly onto the dirt road for any work outside the confines of the trailer.

Unpacking the trailer and preparing for launch is an all-hands exercise but in less than a couple of hours after arrival, everything is in place for payload integration and the dry run. On the day of launch it takes less than one hour after arrival to have everything in place outside. The trailer is just not quite big enough, even though it’s the longest available in its class, to install the payload module and nosecone inside. It is big enough that work can be done on the payload module itself, charge batteries and do the tightness checks before buttoning up the propulsion module with the fin can. It does get crowded at times in the trailer with payload workers and the team.

There are thoughts on having a permanent 53-ft container, or two, for the actual work on the rocket and, banked up with dirt for insulation and even impact protection, this would serve as vehicle preparation, payload integration, nosecone and recovery section installation facilities. The launch trailer would purely be for launch ops and transportation. There is a permanent generator on location that could be used for light, heat and AC for the summer months.

The cold is definitely an issue that we need to address on future vehicles. We purchased some electric blankets from Wal-Mart as a temporary measure and wrapped the batteries throughout the night to prevent them from getting too cold but they are attached to a rather large heat sink in the form of the aluminum rocket. The blankets did a respectable job but we need a more permanent solution in the form of heat tape, external power source and insulation preferably with a thermostat so that we can regulate the battery temperature through the night. If we make a decent job of this there should be no reason we can’t leave the vehicle on the launch stand overnight if desired.

The Stanley electric space heaters were next to worthless (don’t remember them being that bad when we first bought them but we pointed one directly inside the fin can to help keep the RTT batteries warm. The breaker on the diesel generator trips if we run both heaters together with the vacuum pump needed for one of the payloads and we couldn’t afford to have that drop out in the middle of the night. We are really close to the limit for our generator but it was the most reasonably priced diesel generator before we started looking at a machine costing several thousand dollars. We added an auxiliary diesel tank so that it can run overnight at full power without needing to refuel.

One thing that we have learned by experience is that we need to power up the vehicle and in particular the GPS to let it “learn” where it is. The last time it gets fired up is at Caddo Mills and it takes the Novatel GPS some time to figure out this isn’t Texas Toto and start to get a solution; sometimes as long as twenty to thirty minutes. We’ve second guessed faulty connectors more than once in the past. The second time it fires up the process only takes a few minutes before it locks in a solution. We use a combination of the FAA’s GPS RAIM Prediction Tool and n2yo.com’s satellite tracking function to determine the quality of GPS coverage. Typically, the GPS coverage at the launch site is good to excellent. The same cannot be said for telecommunications! Cell coverage is abysmal.

Having mentioned GPS issues, the first problem we came across on Thursday was that it took a long time for the GPS to acquire a lock … a very, very long time. In fact, it wouldn’t! This time around we did find a hardware issue, a loose connector that, once found, was a thirty minute repair but by the time we had remedied the problem and verified that the GPS was operational, it was too late in the day to begin the dry run and we decided to delay until the Friday. It was precisely for this kind of problem that we built in the second preparation day as a buffer.

Read more: Armadillo Aerospace – News Archive: STIG B-III Mission Report.

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