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NASA, Universities Partner to Fly Student Experiments Aboard High-Altitude 'Research Lab' in Early May
Steve Roy
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
(Phone: 256.544.0034)
News release: 05-067

A NASA high-altitude research balloon Student researchers at four American universities are partnering with NASA to analyze characteristics of Earth’s atmosphere via experiments sent aloft in a one-of-a-kind, high-flying laboratory in the sky.

Undergraduate researchers from Pennsylvania State University in State College, Montana State University in Bozeman, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., will fly their sophisticated science experiments on NASA’s new “Deep Space Test Bed” facility. The aluminum gondola is about the size of a standard passenger car. It is designed to be lifted by NASA’s 40-million-cubic-foot scientific balloon to an altitude of about 120,000 feet, or nearly 23 miles.

The gondola was prepared for flight by engineers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the University of Alabama in Huntsville, working in partnership at the Huntsville-based National Space Science and Technology Center. NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., manages the Balloon Program for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The experimental effort, part of Marshall’s Space Radiation Shielding project, is managed by the Marshall Center’s Exploration Science and Technology Division on behalf of the Human Systems Research and Technology Office at NASA Headquarters.

When the gondola takes to the air on or about May 15, the student experiments will help NASA test the floating lab’s structural integrity, power system and data management system -- while enabling the university teams to conduct real-world atmospheric research of their own.

The student involvement resulted from a joint effort by NASA’s Student Launch Initiative Program, a hands-on educational program sponsored by the Marshall Center and the National Space Grant Consortium, an affiliation of more than 550 universities, private companies and local education institutions dedicated to inspiring and training the next generation of America’s space workforce. Proposals were solicited nationally. Those received were screened by NASA prior to selection for the test flight opportunity.

The project stemmed from NASA’s desire always to fly the most efficient -- in this case, experiment-laden -- test flights. The gondola is intended to fly polar routes to enable scientists to study cosmic rays, those billion-electron-volts-strong blasts of radiation energy rocketing through our galaxy at nearly the speed of light. Studies are conducted near the North and South Poles because strong deflection of cosmic radiation by the Earth’s magnetic field hinders effective research at latitudes closer to the equator.

First, however, the science gondola required flight testing over the United States. Rather than conduct a dry run with an empty gondola, NASA and the Consortium invited science students from its partner colleges and universities nationwide to propose experiment payloads for the flight -- ones pursuing other areas of NASA research.

“It’s our hope to provide these student scientists with hands-on experience in systems design, construction and flight,” said NASA engineer Mark Christl, project manager for the Deep Space Test Bed. “This is a terrific way to help inspire and train the next generation of space explorers, while helping NASA fully test a versatile, valuable science resource.”

The Deep Space Test Bed will lift off on its engineering test flight from Fort Sumner, N.M., a former U.S. Army airfield 160 miles southeast of Albuquerque. The flight is expected to last up to 24 hours. To complete the flight, the experiment and its parachute float to the ground after being separated from the balloon by radio command. Helium is released from the balloon for descent near Ft. Sumner. Once retrieved by personnel from the National Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, the gondola will be returned to the Marshall Center for analysis, and the experiments returned to their student investigators.

More about the student payloads The Penn State team’s experiment, "Characterization of Aerosols in the Troposphere and Stratosphere," will use a spectrometer, which breaks up light signals into a spectrum, to detect the “optical scattering” of trace chemicals in the atmosphere. Their goal: to identify pollution-related aerosols -- solid or liquid particles in the air -- in the troposphere, which rises eight miles above sea level, and the stratosphere, which goes to about 31 miles. Dr. Sven Bilen, professor of engineering design at Penn State, is advising the student team.

The Montana State project, "Measurement of the Radiation Environment in and around the Deep Space Test Bed Gondola," will use Geiger counters to study fluctuating environmental radiation and its impact on the integrity and behavior of the balloon. The study is expected to illustrate how prolonged exposure can adversely affect high-flying science platforms over time. The team is being advised by Montana State physics professor Dr. David Klumpar.

The University of Alabama in Huntsville project, “Infrared Measurements of Balloon Temperature,” seeks to be the first to measure skin temperature of a high-altitude balloon, which can be affected during flight by infrared radiation heating from Earth and from direct solar radiation. Infrared thermal detectors on the science gondola will continuously monitor changes in temperature as the balloon rises and descends. Dr. Georgia Richardson, a professor of engineering at the university, is serving as faculty advisor for the team.

The Auburn team’s experiment, "Simulating Measurements of the Martian Magnetic Field," uses magnetometers -- instruments that gauge the strength of a magnetic field -- to simulate how data would be recorded during the proposed “Magnetic-field Investigation of Mars by Interacting Consortia” experiment, or MIMIC. Now in development by students at nine national Space Grant Consortium universities, the study is intended to document Mars’ patchy, fluctuating magnetic field, which does not protect its surface against high-energy radiation the way Earth’s magnetic field protects our world. The study, which could fly on a future Mars mission, could help identify areas of the Red Planet where human explorers would be safest from radiation exposure. Dr. Jean-Marie Wersinger, professor of physics at Auburn, is advising the team.

Following the flight test over New Mexico, the science gondola will go into active operation over the poles later in 2005. There, at the edge of space, instruments mounted on the Deep Space Test Bed will measure how direct exposure to galactic cosmic rays affects flight hardware, computer hardware and other materials. The research will help NASA develop shielding to protect future spacecraft and human explorers venturing into the Solar System.

For more information about NASA’s Space Radiation Shielding Project, visit:

To learn more about NASA’s Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, visit:

To learn more about NASA’s Scientific Balloon Program, visit:

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