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Scientific Balloons Creating a Buzz with WASP
10.04.12
 
WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. – Engineers at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility here have taken the task of staying on point quite literally—down to the arc second.

In short, the Wallops Arc Second Pointer, known simply as WASP, does exactly what its name implies: it’s an instrument that points with accuracy and stability down to the arc second, or 1/3,600 of a degree of angular measurement.

Wallops Arc Second Pointer payload prepared to launch onboard a scientific balloon. For comparison, imagine taking a laser pointer and holding the beam steady in the middle of a penny that is 2.5 miles away from you. That’s WASP. Now, for example, take WASP and attach a high-powered telescope and you have a highly precise instrument for conducting research in and at points far beyond our solar system.

Still, that leaves the issue of overcoming image distortion as one gazes out through the atmosphere. On that challenge, another Wallops office is creating quite a buzz with WASP.

The Wallops Balloon Program Office successfully flew and checked out the WASP system aboard a scientific balloon launched from Fort Sumner, N.M., Sept. 22, 2012. The helium-filled balloon, so massive in volume you could stuff the Houston Astrodome inside of it, flew the nearly 3,000 pound WASP payload to an altitude of 125,000 feet during a 15-and-a-half hour test flight.

At that altitude, the instrument is above more than 99 percent of the atmosphere, said Dave Stuchlik, Wallops program manager for the WASP development project.

“That pretty much takes care of the atmosphere issue,” said Stuchlik. And at a fraction of the cost of putting a telescope in space, balloons and WASP are proving themselves a good match for the field of astronomy, among others.

Scientific Balloon at flight carrying the Wallops Arc Second Pointer.“These are the kinds of technical challenges that make working here worth it,” said Stuchlik, who has managed the balloon flight program for WASP for nearly three years. “Fighting through the challenges and getting the system out in the field and having such a great, successful flight—I feel a great sense of accomplishment.”

While the way ahead is largely unchartered, Stuchlik said many scientists have already approached him and have included WASP into research proposals. “I can see it used for exoplanetary studies,” said Stuchlik. “That seems hot right now.”

The WASP system is scheduled to fly next in 2013 supporting a calibration instrument.

The Wallops Balloon Program Office, a suborbital space flight program used primarily in support of NASA-sponsored space and earth sciences research activities, supports 15 to 20 balloon flights annually. For more information, see http://sites.wff.nasa.gov/code820/about.html.