It doesn't always take a spaceship to do planetary science. Sometimes you just need a balloon, gondola and some high tech cameras. This fall, NASA plans to launch a new balloon-based mission that will float to the edge of our atmosphere to observe a comet from the far reaches of the solar system.
This mission, managed by NASA's Glenn Research Center, is focused on a newly discovered comet called ISON. According to Andrew Cheng of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), principle investigator for the mission, ISON is making its first appearance in the inner solar system. The comet is from the Oort cloud, part of a group of hundreds of millions of objects at the edge of our solar system, created potentially billions of years ago.
ISON, just discovered last year, is traveling past Earth's view and toward the sun. It may only pass once before it's potentially destroyed when it nears the sun. The opportunity to observe the comet and take measurements of the water and carbon dioxide content is brief, but the information could help scientists understand how the solar system was formed.
The Balloon Rapid Response for ISON (BRRISON) mission developed an aggressive schedule to study the comet in mid-September. The launch window for balloons only lasts a few weeks at the launch site in New Mexico when winds are in the right direction and speeds.
"We started by refurbishing the Stratospheric TeraHertz Observatory balloon gondola used in missions launched over Antarctica and we added a new science payload," says Terry O'Malley, BRRISON project manager.
"BRRISON will contain high technology infrared and visible light cameras," he explains. "But it will also demonstrate new developments in image stabilization."
One of the biggest problems on balloon missions is the movement of the payload from atmospheric disturbances. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and Southwest Research Institute have refined the stabilization and precision-pointing capabilities so telescope cameras can get clear, high-quality images.
The gondola payload will be harnessed to a high altitude balloon that will float to 120,000 feet above Earth. "The idea is to get high enough to avoid the water and much of the carbon dioxide in our own atmosphere, in order to obtain better images," says O'Malley.
BRRISON will launch from Fort Sumner, New Mexico and stay aloft for only one day, just enough time to reveal some of the secrets of this visitor from the edges of our solar system.
The success of BRRISON could point the way to a new planetary mission option. "Balloon missions are low-cost alternatives that may offer quick response options to other planetary science targets," says Tibor Kremic, BRRISON project executive at Glenn. "Such a platform could be an important alternative tool for future scientific investigations."
As balloon systems continue to become more sophisticated, missions could be developed to explore other questions related to planetary atmospheres, asteroid composition and many other exciting scientific topics.
More information about the BRRISON Mission.
- Nancy Smith Kilkenny, SGT Inc.
NASA's Glenn Research Center
Last Updated: 10 September 2013