LASP-built instrument to study the birthplace of stars and planets

The Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph, or CHESS, sounding rocket is prepped for its six-minute flight to observe far beyond our solar system—to peer at a place where new stars are born. (Courtesy NASA/WSMR)

The Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph, or CHESS, sounding rocket is prepped for its six-minute flight to observe far beyond our solar system—to peer at a place where new stars are born. (Courtesy NASA/WSMR)

UPDATE (Feb. 22, 2016): The Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph or CHESS-2 was successfully launched on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 9:15 p.m. MST on a NASA Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The 1,108 pound CHESS-2 payload flew to an altitude of 191 miles. Preliminary analysis shows that the science team acquired all of its targets and received data. The payload has been successfully recovered.

To the casual onlooker, the space between the stars is benign and inactive. However, this space, also called the interstellar medium, is very active and contains the raw materials for future solar systems.

On February 21, 2016, the Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph (CHESS) will fly on a NASA suborbital sounding rocket on its second flight in two years to study the atoms and molecules in the interstellar medium. CHESS is an astrophysics payload developed by CU/LASP faculty, researchers, and students.

“Our observations allow us to measure the composition, motion, and temperature of this interstellar material in unprecedented detail,” said CHESS principal investigator and LASP scientist, Kevin France.

Studying the interstellar medium allows investigators to look at two things. The first is to study the building blocks of future planetary systems. “These studies allow us to take a snapshot of the raw materials that were needed to develop planetary atmospheres, such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen,” France said.

The second is to better understand the chemical and temperature structure of the Milky Way galaxy. “High-resolution absorption line spectroscopy of the sightlines towards UV-bright stars provides the richest set of diagnostics with which to simultaneously measure the temperature, composition, and velocity fields of the solar neighborhood,” said France, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

CHESS-2 is scheduled to launch at 9 p.m. MST on a 58-foot tall NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The 1,090 pound payload carrying the telescope assembly is projected to fly to about 192 miles altitude. It will then descend via parachute and land at White Sands for recovery.

In addition to France, the CHESS-2 team is made up of LASP research associate Brian Fleming, and LASP graduate students Keri Hoadley, Nicholas Nell, Robert Kane, and Nick Kruczek. CHESS also serves as Keri Hoadley’s primary doctoral dissertation research. Several LASP undergraduates played important roles in the laboratory testing of the payload at the Astrophysics Research Lab at the University of Colorado.

Phil Eberspearker, chief of the Sounding Rocket Programs Office at Wallops, said, “This will be the second flight of CHESS. It shows that with sounding rockets you can get valuable science using the latest technology. The science instrument can be recovered, upgraded and flown again to mature the technology for possible flights on spacecraft.”

CHESS-2 builds on the first flight of CHESS in May 2014. There are two primary upgrades to the spectrograph used in CHESS. The spectrograph consists of two diffraction gratings and one detector.

“We are flying a new diffraction grating. This grating breaks the ultraviolet light from our target star into its constituent colors. This new grating has over 10 times the efficiency of the grating we flew on the first CHESS mission. This means 10 times the signal collected,” France said.

“This increased efficiency will allow us to look at more molecular material and richer chemistry than what we had with the CHESS instrument,” France said.

He added, “We have also had our detector refurbished. Both of these components are part of our technology development program to flight test hardware for future large space observatories.”

The launch is supported through NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program at Wallops. NASA’s Heliophysics Division manages the sounding rocket program.

The original NASA feature is located here: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/chess-2-studying-the-birthplace-of-stars-and-planets

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