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.”
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.
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.