Learn about the science program in Sweden on using micro gravity in rockets.
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Kiruna in the far north of Sweden is home to a unique science program. The remote and usually snowy hills of Swedish Lapland provide a safe place for launching and falling rockets. Unlike larger rockets that launch spacecraft into orbit, sounding rockets like this go up and then fall back down to earth. They often carry experimental equipment that can be recovered and analyzed. ESRANGE specializes in experiments during the brief period of very low gravity at the top of the rockets trajectory. Among the tasks onboard the European Space Agency’s Maxus-6 mission is an experiment to study the physics of foam. A team from Paris-Sud University in France led by Scientist Dominique Langevin is at ESRANGE to witness this launch. The team uses microgravity to extend the lifetime of the foams they are studying. The November nights in Lapland are long with temperatures plummeting down to -30°C. The night before the launch, the aurora borealis is visible in the sky. As dawn nears and the countdown approaches, the tension in the control room is evident. Years of work may depend on the success of Maxus-6. The moment of truth is at hand. After just a few minutes, experiment housing has split from the rest of the rocket and reached its great trajectory. For the next 12 minutes and 40 seconds, the experiments are carried out in near weightlessness, the condition known as microgravity. When the time is up, the experiment housing begins to fall back to earth. Later, the recovery teams locate the experiment housing about 90 km down range at the launch site. Because the freezing conditions here might affect the experiments inside, speed is important now. After using pure manpower to dislaunch it from the snow, the housing is carried by helicopter and tractor back. At the base, the scientists are keen to get to the results of their work. The housing is taken apart and the first results are analyzed. The experiments onboard this launch have been a great success.