The first experiments of a collaborative U.S./Russian space science program were successfully launched recently aboard two Russian Meteorological MR-12 sounding rockets from Kapustin Yar, near Volgograd, Russia, a test range similar to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Known as the Active Geophysical Rocket Experiment (AGRE), the program consists of a series of scientific experiments to characterize and study the effects of dense plasma regions in the near-Earth environment, known as the ionosphere, and its effect on radio frequency communication.
Launch of the first Russian sounding rocket-a short-lived rocket with instrument packages that follow a near vertical path to an apogee of around 160 km-occurred Jan. 30, 1997, at 8:59 p.m. EST. The second rocket was launched Feb. 4, 1997, at 9:16 p.m. EST. Impact of the rockets was approximately 100 km downrange in the neighboring country of Kazakhstan. Both rockets performed as planned and all objectives appear to have been met or exceeded. The data will be analyzed by both American and Russian scientists as part of a data exchange agreement between the two principal participating organizations.
"The cost of these AGRE launches was shared equitably between the two countries," says Peter Partridge, AGRE Program Manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Md. "By combining efforts, we were able to conduct this research for much less than experiments of this type would typically cost if conducted entirely with U.S. assets."
"The space environment can have a profound effect on the operation of U.S. and Russian satellites used for communications, navigation, weather, and ballistic missile defense," says Dr. Robert Erlandson, APL Program Scientist for the AGRE program. "For example, changes in the ionosphere can severely disrupt communications between satellites and their ground stations. In polar regions, auroral phenomena can completely knock out some frequencies. And most of us have experienced the ionosphere's effects on AM radio stations, when in the evening some stations fade out while others from distant cities come in."
The AGRE sounding rockets carried an explosive type generator (ETG), RF beacon, and a number of scientific instruments. According to Erlandson, the ETG separated from the diagnostic payload containing the scientific instruments. The high explosives in the ETG detonated creating an artificial dense plasma cloud that enveloped the diagnostic payload, which measured the density of the cloud and observed the intensity of the bright flash created by the ETG explosion.
Two Russian ground-observation sites, as well as BMDO's Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) satellite built by APL viewed the experiments. MSX was able to track the experiments by means of an APL-constructed RF beacon placed on each of the sounding rockets. The ETG explosion was a spectacular site from the ground, according to Russian scientists at the launch site. The cloud lasted for quite some time although the frigid temperature of -25C made viewing the explosion a challenge.
MSX also obtained excellent data of the ETG explosion by keeping the target precisely placed in its field-of-view. "In fact, MSX acquired the first spectrographic image of an artificial plasma cloud from space," says Erlandson. "This data will allow us to determine the major species of the plasma cloud and hopefully understand, in greater detail, how these regions affect radio frequency communication." The American scientists will exchange MSX data from the SPIRIT III, Visible and Ultraviolet sensors, while the Russians scientists will provide data from their on-board sensor package and ground instrumentation.
The AGRE experiment is an ongoing U.S./Russian Cooperative program that began in September 1994 with scientists from APL and the Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute for Dynamics of the Geospheres (IDG). APL is sponsored by the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), and IDG is sponsored by the Central Scientific Investigation Institute of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces. The M-12 rockets were built and launched by NPO Typhoon of Obninsk, Russia, and the Institute of Applied Geophysics in Moscow provided instrumentation support for the experiments.
This new-found partnership in science is fostering teamwork from two previously opposing forces. "There is a lot we can learn from each other," says Partridge. "It is to our interest and benefit, I believe, to work cooperatively together and to help the Russian science community continue peaceful scientific experiments that are of global importance. It is in this spirit that we are collaborating on this experiment and helping our fellow scientists."
The two sounding rocket experiments are possible stepping stones to a series of more in-depth collaborative experiments.
AGRE sponsors and direct participants at BMDO include: Dr. Richard Bleach, Associate Deputy for Technology Readiness; Col. Bill Smith, Director of Sensors and Phenomenology Technology; Lt. Col. John Airis, AGRE Program Integrator; and Maj. George Prohoda, International Affairs.
Principal APL participants in the sounding rocket experiments include: Dr. Ching Meng, Principal Investigator; Dr. Robert Erlandson, Program Scientist; Dr. Basil Stoyanov, Russian Liaison and Contributing Scientist; Gene Heyler, Program Analyst; Edward Reynolds, Integration and Test Engineer; Michael Kreitz, Mechanical Engineer; Kate Flaherty, RF Communications Engineer; Peter Partridge, Program Manager; and Cheryl Reed, Program Administrator.
The Applied Physics Laboratory is a not-for-profit laboratory and independent division of the Johns Hopkins University. APL conducts research and development primarily for national security and for nondefense projects of national and global significance. Located midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in Laurel, Md., APL employs 2,600 permanent staff.