The 1,000-pound payload, which includes an optical bench equipped with high-resolution cameras, took pictures of the sun before touching down underneath a parachute about 80 kilometers down range. The flight ended in 896 seconds, or about 15 minutes.
Last-minute concerns about the rocket's guidance system slowed the launch, which took five countdowns before the rocket finally lifted off.
"I thought, 'It's not going to happen. It's not going to go'," MSU assistant physics professor and project leader Charles Kankelborg said after the launch.
"Then it went 'shoosh'," he said.
A special ordnance crew wearing flak jackets had to retrieve the payload because it landed in a weapons impact testing area. In a few days, the MSU crew will drive it back to Bozeman on a U-Haul.
Delayed three times since last August, the launch of the 60-foot rocket capped five years of work, most of it done by MSU students. It was the first NASA rocket payload ever built in Montana, according to MSU physics department head Bill Hiscock.
The project is called MOSES, for multi-order solar extreme ultraviolet spectrograph. It's a name, Kankelborg has joked, that only a scientist could love.
"The whole thing is sort of a Rube Goldberg-like contraption," he said. "There were so many pieces to fit together."
MOSES had to rise high enough to escape Earth's atmosphere, which absorbs the extreme ultraviolet light the payload was built to see.
"This is an experiment that isn't just enhanced by space; it absolutely needs space to exist," Kankelborg said.
Equipped with sensors similar to those on digital cameras, the payload gathered high-resolution images of a broad section of the sun.
"It's more stable than a good photographer's tripod," Kankelborg said of the spacecraft programmed to open a shutter and fire thrusters to position itself for its brief sojourn in space. "It's quite amazing."
The payload also gathered detailed information on each pixel from the extreme ultraviolet portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.
"What's new about MOSES is combining images with spectral information," Kankelborg said. "Many previous instruments have done one or the other, but not both simultaneously."
Scientists hope MOSES and other spacecraft will help reveal what's behind the sun's magnetic and, at times, explosive personality. Solar flares and explosions from the corona pack enormous amounts of energy. In today's increasingly digital environment, solar flares and other electromagnetic bursts from the sun can really mess up satellites, cell phones, power grids and related technologies.
Rich Parker, 35, assumed that as a mechanical engineering student he would design and build things. But a rocket payload?
"Never," said Parker, who graduated last December. "I never expected to be involved in a NASA-supported project."
Parker was one of three students who watched yesterday's launch at the missile range with Kankelborg. The others were graduate student Lewis Fox and MSU graduate Hans Courrier.
Kankelborg said up to 30 students at a time worked on the project under Fox. Most were studying engineering, physics or computer science. Some machined parts. Others designed electrical and cooling systems. A few wrote software. Others wore white carbon-fiber suits to assemble the payload in a clean room at MSU.
"I was really fortunate to work on something of this caliber," said Michael Chase, who graduated in 2003 with a mechanical engineering technology degree. Chase designed and built the housings for the digital sensors.
In 2004, Chase traveled with the payload to England to insert the sensors into the housings. He returned last year with Kankelborg and Fox to test the optics in a vacuum chamber that resembles space.
"There were so many things that were so difficult and took so much time," Kankelborg said.
Chase said his more than four years on the project helped him land a job after graduation. The Nampa, Idaho, native is working for the high-tech S2 Corporation in Bozeman.
Contact: Charles Kankelborg, firstname.lastname@example.org; Annette Trinity-Stevens, (406) 994-5607