October 2, 2008 — When NASA researchers want to study meteor showers or spacecraft streaking through Earth’s atmosphere, one of the first places they call is the Clay Center Observatory in Brookline, Massachusetts. This state-of-the-art facility is part of Dexter and Southfield Schools, which provides K-12 education for more than 600 students.
The “NASA hotline” rang again earlier this year, and in the predawn hours of September 29th a Clay Center trio found itself crammed with dozens of other scientists aboard two aircraft high over the South Pacific Ocean. Their mission was to record the dramatic nighttime reentry of a large European spacecraft called Jules Verne as it slammed into Earth’s atmosphere at more than 5 miles per second.
Aboard one chase plane, a commercially owned Gulfstream V, were Clay Center faculty members Ronald Dantowitz and Marek Kozubal. They operated a bank of eight sensitive cameras and spectrographs, built at the school, to record the temperature and composition of superheated fragments created during the spacecraft’s blazing atmospheric plunge. Meanwhile, undergraduate student David Sliski operated an additional camera and spectrograph on the second aircraft, a DC-8 that NASA has converted into an airborne laboratory.
Dantowitz, director of the Clay Center Observatory, reports that the team’s make-or-break observations were a complete success. As the instruments continuously tracked Jules Verne’s final moments, the spacecraft first broke into three large chunks before exploding violently into hundreds more. Dantowitz, Kozubal, and Sliski had ringside seats as the dramatic disintegration unfolded some 50 miles up.
“The reentry was spectacular,” Dantowitz admits, but his team wasn’t there to sightsee. “The images we took will help NASA and the European Space Agency to understand the dynamics of spacecraft reentry more fully,” he explains, “and will result in safer and more reliable designs for future spacecraft.”
Jules Verne, a passengerless craft also known as an Automated Transfer Vehicle, had been docked to the International Space Station from March 9th to September 5th. Roughly the size of a large bus, it already weighed 20 tons before astronauts stuffed it with another 2.5 tons of garbage and waste that had accumulated on the Space Station.
To prepare for this airborne expedition, NASA scientist Peter Jenniskens first assembled a contingent of 30 researchers at the space agency’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. After days of checks, calibrations, and test runs, the team climbed aboard the two aircraft and flew to Tahiti, which served as the staging base for September 29th’s predawn encounter.
Once back in Massachusetts, Dantowitz and Kozubal will need many months to analyze their data. “The work of the Clay Center is often exciting, but the impact of this mission makes it truly extraordinary and very rewarding,” Dantowitz notes, adding that Dexter-Southfield students will be able to use the instruments and the accumulated data for research projects to enhance their science education.