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A Famous "FIRST" Launched by NASA to Study Earth's Energy

In an effort to put its core values of exploration, discovery and understanding "first," NASA recently launched Far-Infrared Spectroscopy of the Troposphere (FIRST), an infrared sensor, to the edge of Earth's atmosphere on a stratospheric scientific balloon. Launched from Fort Sumner, N.M., this instrument's inaugural flight illustrated NASA's newest possibilities for remote sensing, allowing scientists to better study the energy emitted from Earth into space, and ultimately helping to understand our changing climate.

On June 7, 2005, the FIRST sensor was launched on a huge, high altitude 11 million-cubic-foot, helium-filled, pilotless balloon. From nearly 20 miles high, the balloon flight demonstrated the new sensor's ability to see invisible light, or radiation emitted by the Earth's atmosphere that scientists haven't been able to thoroughly measure before -- "far-infrared" radiation.

On June 7, 2005, the Far-Infrared Spectroscopy of the Troposphere, or FIRST, sensor was launched on an 11 million cubic foot, helium-filled, pilotless balloon.

Image right: Shown in the background is the high-flying balloon used to carry the FIRST instrument into the lower stratosphere. The FIRST instrument is shown in the foreground. Image credit: Jess Landeros.

"We would like to increase our understanding of the radiation the planet emits to help us learn how the Earth will respond to changes in this radiation," said Marty Mlynczak, principal investigator for FIRST and senior research scientist at NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.

FIRST is a prototype infrared radiation sensor developed in partnership with NASA Langley by the Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL), North Logan, Utah. A third partner, the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Harvard University, Boston, contributed a key component to the instrument.

FIRST will take measurements ranging from 10 to 100 micrometers, or 4/10000ths to 4/1000ths of an inch in wavelength. A micrometer is one-millionth of a meter. Current sensors do not perform measurements beyond 15 micrometers. Scientists believe that the Earth loses one-half of its energy in the spectrum band between 15 and 100 micrometers.

"This sensor can measure a range of the spectral region that has not often been measured before," said Stan Wellard, FIRST program manager at SDL.

The electromagnetic spectrum: Radio waves, microwaves, x-rays, gamma rays, and the spectrum of visible colors are all really the same thing - electromagnetic energy.

Image above: "The Electromagnetic Spectrum" -- Radio waves, microwaves, x-rays, gamma rays, and the spectrum of visible colors are all really the same thing - electromagnetic energy. The differences are their wavelengths. Radio waves are long, measuring as much as hundreds of meters between peaks. Gamma ray wavelengths are extremely short, as little as trillionths of a meter. A photon of shorter-wavelength light packs more energy than a photon of longer-wavelength light. Image credit: Herschel Space Observatory.

With a volume of 11 million cubic feet (or 311,500 cubic meters), the balloon used to carry FIRST into the upper atmosphere is the same size as almost 12 Goodyear blimps. Such a huge NASA balloon was needed to carry FIRST high into the atmosphere and provide a stable platform where it was able to take measurements for more than 5 hours, simulating measurements from an orbiting satellite.

Following FIRST's flight, once the payload was recovered and had been retrieved, the team was able to gather some real-time results and then perform further data analysis. If NASA and SDL are able to demonstrate that FIRST can make the necessary measurements, it could open the door to the development of a satellite version.

"I am excited about the FIRST instrument. It is a result of a lot of hard work from a dedicated team," said Mlynczak "This science has come to the forefront. We look forward to taking this technology into space."

In addition to FIRST, experiments from 41 schools representing 17 states were flown in a NASA Student Experiment Module. The experiments, in brick-size plastic containers inside two larger containers about the size of large briefcases, are looking at the effect of the flight environment on test articles such as materials, microscopic organisms and seeds. The students will receive their experiments in about two to three weeks after their flight.

Student experiments flown with the FIRST instrument.

Image left: Student experiments were carried into the upper atmosphere by the high flying balloon in a NASA Student Experiment Module. Image credit: NASA.

The FIRST instrument has been under development for three years as part of NASA's Instrument Incubator Program managed by the NASA Earth Science Technology Office. This low-cost program advances and demonstrates, in a relevant environment, new technology needed for future NASA space measurements. Additional support for the balloon flight was provided by the Upper Atmosphere Research Program.

Launch, flight and recovery operations for the pilotless, helium filled scientific balloon are conducted by the National Scientific Balloon Facility, Palestine, Texas. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va., manages the Balloon Program for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Ca., provided the instrument's gondola and participated in recovery efforts.

For more information about FIRST on-line, visit:

Information on NASA’s Balloon Program is available at:

For Educational Flight Projects Office information please visit:

Katie Lorentz
NASA's Langley Research Center