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THE ROCKET THAT Rob Michell is working on (at left) is intended to study the Northern Lights.

Tusten Clerk's Son
Is Studying the Sky

By Jeanne Sager
FAIRBANKS, ALASKA — March 8, 2005 – Maybe the coursework at Narrowsburg Central School didn’t take a rocket scientist, but one NCS grad is on his way to becoming just that.
Robert Michell, a 1998 graduate of the former district, spends his time in Fairbanks, Alaska these days, a member of a group that will soon be sending a rocket into space to study the mysterious Aurora Borealis (known more commonly as the Northern Lights).
It’s a big dream for a kid from a tiny hamlet on the Delaware River.
Michell left Narrowsburg in 1998 to pursue a bachelor’s in physics at Clarkson University in Potsdam, a degree he earned in 2002.
Since then he’s been working toward a Ph.D. in physics in Dartmouth College’s prestigious science department in Hanover, NH.
A science nut from the beginning, Michell found his true calling as an undergrad at Clarkson.
“I was exposed to the physics and math of electricity and magnetism for the first time, and it really fascinated me,” he explained. “I liked how beautifully the theory fits together and that it is almost everywhere in nature and in technology.”
He chose Dartmouth to pursue his studies in electrodynamics in part because of the professors at the college – one of the nation’s best for scientific pursuits.
In Hanover, there are a number of professors doing research on plasma, one application of electrodynamics, Michell explained.
When one of his instructors, Dr. Kristina Lynch, earned a grant for a sounding rocket to study Earth space plasma associated with the Aurora Borealis, Michell decided to do his thesis work with her.
“I was excited about the idea of getting to work on building instruments to be flown on a rocket,” he explained.
For the past year and a half, Michell and his research team have actually been working on the rocket itself – building electron and ion detectors and the electronics which control them.
Late last year, they moved on to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
The goal was to “integrate our instruments with the NASA instruments and build up the rocket payload to test it and measure its properties.”
This was all in preparation for moving on to Poker Flat Research Range, a rocket launching facility owned by the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute under contract with Wallops.
Poker Flat is the nation’s only non-federal, university-owned facility – and it’s located in the auroral zone, perfect for studying the lights.
That’s where Michell has been for the past few weeks.
Since transporting the rocket from Virginia, they’ve put the entire thing back together – the “payload” portion is 20 feet long, and the four stages of motors are another 40 feet. It takes about two weeks to completely assemble the 60-foot-tall rocket.
Once launched, Michell explained, the rocket will break apart into five pieces to measure the electric field, magnetic field, ions and electrons. The actual flight will take a total of 15 minutes.
He’ll then construct his doctoral thesis on the analysis of the data collected during the rocket’s flight.
For Michell, “rocket science” is interesting work.
“There are so many different aspects of physics involved in a rocket experiment,” he explained. “You get to be involved in so many different things.”
And it’s opened the doors to incredible opportunity – taking a kid from Narrowsburg to Alaska.
“It’s great to be up here,” Michell noted. “It is beautiful country.
“I never would have guessed that I would be up here doing this if you asked me 10 years ago when I was in high school.”
The kid who played soccer and baseball, who ran cross-country and participated in numerous Sullivan County Interacademic League (SCIL) meets is now a “rocket scientist” looking to make an impact on the world.
The son of Kathy Michell of Narrowsburg and Peter Michell of Oakland, Calif., plans to graduate from Dartmouth in 2007.

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