Carolina Query: What was the big dish in South Nag's Head for?

Carolina Query is a series we've launched based on your questions. One of our first questions was about the mysterious dish near South Nag's Head. Scroll down to ask a question about the science around North Carolina.

Joe Sledge asked: What was the big dish in South Nag's Head for?
March 30, 2018

NASA on the Outer Banks

As part of our series that answers YOUR questions about science in North Carolina,  Joe Sledge wanted to know:  "What was the big dish in South Nags Head for? Rumor was that it was for the Apollo mission, but no one from NASA at the time thinks so." Thanks for your question!

The UNC-TV Science Team thinks the “big dish in South Nags Head” you’re referring to is the Coquina Beach Tracking Station. It’s a temporary complex set up by NASA to track and retrieve important telemetry and other data from rockets launched into space from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Wallops Flight Facility is a division of the Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, D.C.

NASA began using the Coquina Beach site in 2006. It has collected launch data on several orbital and suborbital flights which use solid fuel Minotaur rockets. Wallops Range and Mission Management News Chief Keith Koehler says before a launch, technicians set up a complex of trailers loaded with radar and other high-tech tracking equipment in a secluded area near Coquina Beach. Koehler says it takes several weeks to set up the site. The National Park Service owns the land used for the temporary tracking station.

Tracking Specific Rockets

The tracking center monitors the rocket’s pre-established flight pattern, speed, altitude, distance-down range and vital engine performance data. The information is relayed to Wallops’ Flight Control.

Koehler says the Coquina site is important to NASA because as launched vehicles head south and east away from Wallops Island and pass by the Outer Banks, the Coquina tracking station can pick up the rocket’s signal from the side and feed the data back to the control center. Perhaps surprisingly, not all rockets need to be tracked by the Coquina site. It is only used for rockets with solid propellant rocket engines. That’s because those types of rockets are especially challenging to track. Koehler says the burning fuel of a solid rocket booster blocks the GPS signal from the rocket, making it difficult to track the rocket from launch control at Wallops Island.

Tracking is even more difficult when the vehicle dips below the horizon from Wallops. The Coquina Beach tracking center solves that problem. There is talk that companies are developing new types of solid fuel rockets, which means the Coquina tracking site could be used more often.

To learn more about NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, watch this video. 

 This article is part of a series called Carolina Query, in which the UNC-TV science teams answers your questions about science in North Carolina. Ask a question below!