NASA's balloon technology to track planetary targets

NASA's balloon technology to track planetary targets

Scientists who track planetary targets as they move in the solar system have a new device to carry out planetary observations.

NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia has designed a new pointing system - the Wallops Arc Second Pointer (WASP) - that can point balloon-borne scientific instruments at targets with sub arc-second accuracy and stability.

High-altitude balloons offer a unique, low-cost platform to carry out planetary observations.

"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," explained principal investigator Terry Hurford from the Observatory for Planetary Investigations from the Stratosphere (OPIS).

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

WASP is designed to be a highly flexible, standardised system capable of supporting many science payloads.

"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," added Hurford.
Planetary scientists really haven't been involved in balloon payloads so far.

Planetary targets move with respect to the stars in the background.

"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," explained Hurford.

NASA plans to test the device later this year.

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