The birth of the Sun Labs Space Program

Yes, the Sun Labs Space Program has officially begun! Last Friday (so it takes me a week to blog about something, get over it!) we made the maiden flight of the Sun Labs Space Program. It was extremely well attended by Sun Labs personnel, Labs visitors, and even Greg P. himself. It was a huge success.

But why is Sun Labs starting a Space Program? Well, mostly because there are just enough wing-nuts around here that want to try something fun, slightly dangerous, and mildly interesting. We also have this thing we do every few weeks. We decide (in advance) on a project that we will attempt to start, and complete, in one day. We design a 'project' that can be fairly ambitious, and then we attempt to execute it all in one day. The Space Program is one such project.

We had several reasons for doing this one. First (and not insignificantly) we had been having a hard time ... ummm ... maintaining focus and momentum, shall we say, throughout the day and the project. We'd get in first thing in the morning, all pumped up to get something started, and then after lunch people would wander off to do email, or something pressing, and we'd lose momentum and fall short of completion. Such is the nature of these things.

So, after our meeting with The Mythbuster, we decided that maybe, just maybe if there was the possibility of an explosion, or something getting destroyed, we'd keep people's interest high and sustained. So we decided on a rocket launch. And not just a rocket launch for the sake of launching a rocket, but we thought we'd try to gather some real-time telemetry from the rocket using Sun SPOTs. See, it's not just a total waste of time!

So, the list of things we had to do:

  1. Build a rocket
  2. Outfit the rocket with SPOTs for telemetry readings
  3. Write the ground-telemetry software
  4. Make some antena extenders in case we exceeded the range of the Sun SPOTs
  5. Document the entire thing from start to finish

Sounds easy, right? Well, not quite so easy. We did do some prep-work prior to the project day. Pete St. Pierre and Arshan went to a hobby shop and bought a suitable rocket kit. I contacted the Menlo Park Fire Department and made sure we didn't need a permit, or authorization from them, in order to launch. You only need FAA approval if you plan to go over 5,000 feet, and we didn't have ambitions that high (yet).

Scott Nazarian designed the Sun Labs Space Program Logo:


which you have to admit is pretty cool looking. How can you have a project that doesn't have a logo?

So, we had to build the Rocket. Pete caused the first failure of the day:


Yes, folks, he read the instructions. How could you Pete?! The horror. But we soldiered on. It wouldn't be a true launch if we didn't have some fancy-looking calculations and graphs on the white-board to Arshan (Dr. Von Arshan now) did some for us:


Now that the calculations were out of the way, we completed modifying the rocket to hold Sun SPOTs (the rocket is designed to split in half at the top of its flight and float back to earth, so we decided to outfit each side with a Sun SPOT for double-telemetry and symetry -- and to keep the rocket from veering off wildly into the Bay.


(The madman with the modified rocket is Scott).

So that's two off the list (plus an extra credit for the logo, way to go Scott!). Arshan and I spent the better part of the day writing the telemtery software so we could record, in real time, the data from the Sun SPOT 3-axis 6-G accelerometer (would we peg it??), the light sensor and the temperature sensor. We didn't expect much really useful data off of those last two, but since they are onboard, we ought to collect the data, right? Right. Soldier on.

Rob Tow was in charge of the ground stations. He came up with both a foil-enhanced parabolic dish and a "cantenna" made from a coffee can. It was supposed to be a Pringles can, but I didn't want to choke down the required Pringles chips. :-)

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Excellent! Ground-tracking stations? Check! Rocket? Check! Software? Hold your horses, we're still hacking!


After a much-deserved lunch of Pizza, it occurred to us that maybe we ought to weigh the newly-modified Rocket. After all, we only had Class C motors, and they are only designed to lift about 175 grams. So off we went to the Menlo Park Campus Mailroom.


Big surprise, we're over 200 grams. No way we're getting off the launch pad this way. Maybe those calculations would have been a good idea after all? But Pete saved the day by making a mad-dash back to the hobby shop for a couple of Class D engines (300 grams payload!). But we had to modify the rocket again!! And we were less than an hour from launch time!

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Maybe at this point I should mention that I wrote a short AppleScript application early in the morning that was counting down the time to launch. It started announcing "T-minus X hours, Y minutes and Z seconds until launch" every half-hour. After noon, it sped up to every fifteen minutes. After 2 pm, every 10 minutes, and for the last half-hour before launch, about every 2 minutes. It definitely added to the atmosphere, and the pressure, to have the launch announcer beating the drum.

By 5 minutes to 3, launch time, Arshan and I were still madly hacking the telemetry software, and a large crowd was gathering in the Software Lab. So we moved the launch crew outside to the launch area.


Quite a crowd. We decided at the last minute that maybe the parking lot wasn't the best place, so we quickly relocated to the basketball court by the fitness center, and set up the launch. Rocket, Cantenna, and Parabolic, all ready. SPOTs running live telemetry, ready for launch!

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Countdown ...


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It was wildly successful, and we got real data from the launch. And yes, we pegged the accelerometer, meaning we exceeded 6Gs. Cool! I'll post the data later, if anyone cares.

And it was even successful enough of a launch that we could re-use the rocket afterwards!


Which the team did (without me, as I had a flight to catch).

In hindsight, we should have cleared the launch with Sun Security, as they got a little bent out of shape, and collected a few names and badge numbers. Oh well, it isn't the first time I've gotten in trouble here, and I am willing to bet it won't be the last. :-)

More later ... But the Sun Labs Space Program Lives!!! Next, we shoot for low-earth orbit with mesh-networking of the telemetry back to earth. What do you say?

[I'm going to give my psychoanalyst one more year, then I'm going to Lourdes. -- Woody Allen]


The return of Sun Labs! I can't believe that you didn't invite me when Adam came by. Very cool stuff indeed, even if Geoff doesn't work there anymore.

Posted by ThinGuy on February 17, 2006 at 03:33 PM EST #

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