CHESS-4 will examine building blocks of stars and planets

CHESS Principal Investigator Kevin France (right) and mechanical engineer Stefan Ulrich check out the CHESS-4 payload during instrument integration in the CU Boulder Astrophysical Research Laboratory on East Campus. (Courtesy NASA/Berit Bland)

UPDATE: The Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph, or CHESS 4, was successfully launched on a NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket at 2:47 p.m. MDT, April 16 (4:47 a.m. local, April 17) from the Kwajalein Atoll in The Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The payload systems reported a nominal flight, proceeding as expected. The payload is to be recovered, making it the second NASA astronomical mission with water recovery. Hampered by high winds since the targeted launch day of April 13, CHESS 4 left the pad with only 13 minutes left on the last day of the launch window.

NASA will launch a LASP-built astronomy experiment to study the chemistry involved in the formation of stars and planets in the Milky Way galaxy. The Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph, or CHESS 4, is scheduled for launch on April 13 from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands on a NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket.

The CHESS-4 mission will study the interstellar me­dium, the matter between stars. The mission focuses on translucent clouds of gas that provide the fundamental building blocks for stars and planets. These clouds have very low densities and the only way to study them is to measure how a cloud is affected by a star—and its associated outpouring of stellar material, the stellar wind—moving through it. CHESS will point at the star Gamma Ara, in the constellation Ara.

“Gamma Ara possesses an unusually strong equatorial stellar wind that is injecting large amounts of material and kinetic energy into its immediate galactic environment,” said Kevin France, LASP planetary scientist and principal investigator for CHESS-4. “What is unique about CHESS-4, relative to its previous flights, is that we are interested in studying the molecular properties in the interaction between the wind and the local environment.”

CHESS-4 will study the interaction of this stellar wind with the surrounding interstellar medium in order to observe the excitation of atoms and molecules in the inter­face region. This allows the CHESS team to study the catalysts of galactic chemistry and the raw materials for future generations of stars and planets. The team will also quantify the temperature and motions of the clouds along the line of sight.

This iteration of CHESS also features an updated instrument—a re-tuned spectrograph—which provides approximately four to five times higher spectral resolution than previous incarnations. The higher resolution is ideal for observing the excited molecules against the background signal generated by the interstellar medium.

Another unique aspect of this CHESS flight is the use of a newly developed NASA water recovery system for astronomical payloads. Most NASA astronomical suborbital rocket missions are conducted from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico which allows for land recovery of the highly valued payload. All previous CHESS instruments have flown from White Sands.

“The development of this water recovery system is important as it opens up future launch opportunities from remote southern sites to observe unique phenomena or astronomical objects inaccessible from northern launch ranges,” said France, who is also an assistant professor in the CU Boulder Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences.

NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program is conducted at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Wallops is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Orbital ATK provides mission planning, engineering services and field operations through the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Contract. NASA’s Heliophysics Division manages the sounding rocket program for the agency.

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