The climax of the SCRAP experiment has undoubtedly been during the last two weeks, when the experiment was due to be launched with the REXUS rocket from Esrange in Kiruna. All the work, the one and a half years of it, boiled down to a couple of weeks, ending in a couple of minutes of flight.
The experiment was launched on the 17th of March at 10.15 Local Time (09.15 UTC). The experiment flew for about five minutes, not including the time it spent gliding down to earth under parachute. The apogee (highest point) of the rocket was 87 km and it landed about 30 km away from the launch ramp at Esrange.
The experiment was fully operational before flight and all values were nominal up until the FFUs were successfully ejected from the RMU. The radar operated flawlessly and the SCRAP team successfully managed to communicate the position of the rocket apogee to the radar operators at the EISCAT radar in Tromsö who managed to precisely aim the radar at the intended point of the rockets trajectory.
Unfortunately the experiment had an unknown problem during flight. The FFUs were both fine for the entire duration of the rockets ascent and were still operating nominally when the FFUs were ejected from the RMU and the communication was broken as planned. However, the FFUs did not broadcast their position to the ETAG receivers at Esrange or the Orbcomm satellites for post-flight recovery as intended. After a stubborn and valiant attempt by the helicopter recovery team the FFUs unfortunately had to be declared MIA. Visually finding a small 25 cm in diameter object in the snowy forests of Kiruna from a helicopter is not an easy task. As a bit of salt in the wounds the RMU GoPro camera did also not record the flight for some unknown reason. This means that the proper dispersion of the copper particles could not be confirmed.
However, all is not lost! The data from the radar has not been analyzed yet. Ultimately the scientific data will come from the radar back-scatter data recorded at Tromsö. Furthermore, regardless of the failure of the recovery system on the FFUs the mission could still be a success, due to the fact that the FFUs are made from two separate halves; the CU responsible for recovery and localization of the FFUs, and the SU responsible for carrying out the mission, e.g. dispersing the particles and recording the spectrograph data. Even if the CUs failed the SUs might very well have managed to correctly fulfill their tasks. What we need to do however is to find the FFUs…
True, that is a bit of a challenge (if you’ve ever been in the wilderness of Kiruna you would know), but we didn’t manage to get this far by backing down from challenges! Some previous experiments that lost their FFUs, and with them all of their scientific data, actually managed to get them back several years later with the data still intact! Most often it’s the native Sami people of northern Sweden that find them and return them to Esrange for a reward. In a somewhat poetic way we must therefore put our hope in the ancient people of the cold tundras of Lappland to help us recover the science of the 21st century, and all of us in the SCRAP experiment wish them the best of luck in doing so.
Another note that should be made is also that the biggest success of this experiment has already been confirmed, and that is the education of the next generation of space engineers in order to contribute to projects far greater than the SCRAP experiment. All of us in the SCRAP team have gotten invaluable experience from the project, and that is knowledge that all of us will someday apply in other projects that might have an even greater scientific impact than the experiment that we have now spent so much time on building. An old, but not always so comforting, but still very true cliche is that the human race has the fascinating ability to learn from their mistakes, often even more than from their successes.
On a personal level we also have to admit that this experience has been more valuable than any of us could have imagined. For example, the author of this article can testify that he would not be close to the same person today if it weren’t for the SCRAP experiment. The REXUS programme, a collaboration between SNSB and DLR, supported by ESA, is more valuable than many people might think. This is truly the best way of educating future engineers, because after participation in this programme the limits of what we in the team are able to do have been pushed far beyond what we could have ever done before.
The SCRAP experiment team would also like to give some acknowledgments to the organizations who enabled this experiment to become a reality:
Before we end this rather long post I would however like to remind all of you that the experiment is still not completely over. In June the results of the experiment will be presented during the 22nd annual PAC conference for small rocket and balloon experiments and then the final revelation about the experiments findings will be presented; and who knows, maybe we might even have gotten a couple of frozen and lonely FFUs longing for home back by then. All we can say is:
God speed Sami people, God speed.
The SCRAP experiment