Planetary Scientists Get Into Balloon Game

Posted February 10th, 2014 at 7:45 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

The high-altitude balloon that carried the HySICS instruments with WASP is inflated with helium at sunrise on the morning of Sept. 29, 2013. (HySICS Team/LASP)

The high-altitude balloon that carried the HySICS instruments with WASP is inflated with helium at sunrise on Sept. 29, 2013. (HySICS Team/LASP)

A new device developed by NASA will help planetary scientists take advantage of high altitude research balloons, a relatively inexpensive observational platform that has long been used by other scientists.

The balloons, which can climb to the edge of space, have been utilized by researchers  across multiple scientific disciplines, helping them to make groundbreaking findings.

However, until now, there hasn’t been anything that provides scientists who study planets, moons and other planetary systems, the precision they need to utilize high altitude balloons.

“Planetary scientists really haven’t been involved in balloon payloads,” said NASA’s Terry Hurford. “Planetary targets move with respect to the stars in the background. And because you need to track them to gather measurements, you need a system that can accurately point and then follow a target. These challenges are why planetary scientists haven’t gotten into the balloon game.”

Wallops Arc Second Pointer and the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science after a high altitude balloon mission in September. (NASA)

Wallops Arc Second Pointer and the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science after a high altitude balloon mission in September. (NASA)

The new device that will change that is called the Wallops Arc Second Pointer (WASP).  When hoisted aloft by a balloon, WASP can aim astronomical instruments at their planetary objectives with sub arc-second accuracy and stability.

“Arc-second pointing is unbelievably precise,” said David Stuchlik,  WASP project manager. “Some compare it to the ability to find and track an object that is the diameter of a dime from two miles away.”

With their observational tools lifted up high above 95 percent of atmosphere, planetary scientists can do their work free from many of the problems that come with using traditional ground-based observatories, such as atmospheric distortion, which makes stars look like they’re twinkling.

With the help of WASP, planetary scientists will also be able to make their observations in the ultraviolet– and infrared-wavelength bands, something they really can’t do from the surface of the Earth. The WASP has been designed to be quite flexible so that it can be used to help carry out a variety of diverse scientific research projects.

Wallops Arc Second Pointer payload prepared to launch on-board a scientific balloon. (NASA)

Wallops Arc Second Pointer payload prepared to launch on-board a scientific balloon. (NASA)

The WASP has been successfully tested three times, most recently in September 2013, when a 30-story balloon lifted it to an altitude of nearly 37,186 meters above Fort Sumner, New Mexico, with an engineering test unit of the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science (HySICS). From atop most of the Earth’s atmosphere, the WASP was able to precisely point the HySICS unit so that it could measure the Earth, sun and moon.

WASP will get two workouts this coming September. HySICS researchers will conduct another balloon test flight and then WASP will get the chance to show how it performs for a planetary observational experiment, known as the Observatory for Planetary Investigations from the Stratosphere (OPIS), that will study Jupiter and planets beyond the solar system.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

One response to “Planetary Scientists Get Into Balloon Game”

  1. SCIENCE SHOWS THAT THE UNIVERSE CANNOT BE ETERNAL because it could not have sustained itself eternally due to the law of entropy (increasing net energy decay, even in an open system). Einstein showed that space, matter, and time all are physical and all had a beginning. Space even produces particles because it’s actually something, not nothing. Even time had a beginning! Time is not eternal.

    The law of entropy doesn’t allow the universe to be eternal. If the universe were eternal, everything, including time (which modern science has shown is as physical as mass and space), would have become totally entropied by now and the entire universe would have ended in a uniform heat death a long, long time ago. The fact that this hasn’t happened already is powerful evidence for a beginning to the universe.

    Popular atheistic scientist Stephen Hawking admits that the universe had a beginning and came from nothing but he believes that nothing became something by a natural process yet to be discovered. That’s not rational thinking at all, and it also would be making the effect greater than its cause to say that nothing created something. The beginning had to be of supernatural origin because natural laws and processes do not have the ability to bring something into existence from nothing. What about the Higgs boson (the so-called “God Particle”)? The Higgs boson does not create mass from nothing, but rather it converts energy into mass. Einstein showed that all matter is some form of energy.

    The supernatural cannot be proved by science but science points to a supernatural intelligence and power for the origin and order of the universe. Where did God come from? Obviously, unlike the universe, God’s nature doesn’t require a beginning.

    EXPLAINING HOW AN AIRPLANE WORKS doesn’t mean no one made the airplane. Explaining how life or the universe works doesn’t mean there was no Maker behind them. Natural laws may explain how the order in the universe works and operates, but mere undirected natural laws cannot explain the origin of that order. Once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic code and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells, but how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM.

    WHAT IS SCIENCE? Science simply is knowledge based on observation. No one observed the universe coming by chance or by design, by creation or by evolution. These are positions of faith. The issue is which faith the scientific evidence best supports.

    Some things don’t need experiment or scientific proof. In law there is a dictum called prima facie evidence. It means “evidence that speaks for itself.” Of course, in the complexities of human society and relationships, prima facie may not always be what it seems.

    An example of a true prima facie would be if you discovered an elaborate sand castle on the beach. You don’t have to experiment to know that it came by design and not by the chance forces of wind and water.

    If you discovered a romantic letter or message written in the sand, you don’t have to experiment to know that it was by design and not because a stick randomly carried by wind put it there. You naturally assume that an intelligent and rational being was responsible.

    I encourage all to read my popular Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

    Visit my newest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.