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NASA's Planetary Scientists Get New Observation Platform

Update Date: Feb 10, 2014 09:48 AM EST

Scientists studying Earth used high-altitude balloon that enabled them to gain a better view of their targets by carrying their telescopes in the stratosphere. Planetary scientists, on the other hand, have always been in dearth of such accurate off-the-shelf type system. 

However, a new pointing system called Wallops Arc Second Pointer (WASP) has been developed by scientists at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility that addresses the previous challenges. 

"Arc-second pointing is unbelievably precise," said David Stuchlik, the WASP project manager according to RedOrbit. "Some compare it to the ability to find and track an object that is the diameter of a dime from two miles away."

WASP, first tested in 2011, has been designed to be a highly flexible and standardized system which is capable of supporting many science payloads. The system will allow planetary scientists to focus on instrument development. 

"Planetary scientists really haven't been involved in balloon payloads," said Observatory for Planetary Investigations from the Stratosphere (OPIS) Principal Investigator Terry Hurford, according to RedOrbit. "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."

"Time for planetary observations on ground-based observatories is difficult to obtain," Hurford added. "Moreover, high-altitude balloons above 95 percent of the Earth's atmosphere allow for observations in the ultraviolet- and infrared-wavelength bands, which aren't possible with ground-based telescopes. High-altitude balloons offer us a unique, low-cost platform to carry out our planetary observations. This effort provides us with a unique opportunity to build a capability that we can leverage for future opportunities. WASP gives us a new platform."

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