USU Building Sensors to Test Atmosphere

Ed Yeates Reporting
KSL News
June 17, 2004

NASA is about to encircle the earth with an AURA to see how bad pollution is and whether or not global warming is really happening. Scientists call it the most comprehensive look yet at the health of our atmosphere.

AURA is actually a huge satellite that will sweep the earth with some of the most sensitive equipment ever built. Its launch will cap off a 15 year international effort to see what's really happening to the heartbeat of our atmosphere.

John Elwell, Systems Engineer, USU Space Dynamics Lab: "I think the issue of global warming, I think there is an issue. I think it is happening but we don't really know how serious it is or how quickly it's happening."

John Elwell and Bob Anderson, along with their colleagues at Utah State University built part of the optics for a key spectrometer that will be aboard AURA. The specs for the optics on this instrument were so critical, so sensitive, nobody wanted to build them except engineers at USUÂ’s space dynamics lab.

They began working on the hardware seven years ago. Tolerances were so tight, they were afraid to remove pieces from the machine shop.

John Elwell: "We didn't dare remove them from the machine to make a measurement and then put them back in. Because if we did we would never get them back close enough to continue machining on them. It was a tremendous challenge."

Aboard AURA, parts of the sensors USU help build will break up light into colors that measure chemicals affecting the earth's ozone layer.

USU has a long history of building instruments that perform precisely despite extreme temperature changes.

John Elwell: "The tolerances much of the optics is built for are much finer than a human hair - one ten thousandths of one inch. Very little tolerance, very little room for error."

The kind of data scientists need to prove or disprove what's really happening around the globe can have NO room for error at this point. USU's hardware and the other instruments aboard AURA designed to detect greenhouse gasses must now listen and measure - like a doctor's super stethoscope - without missing a beat.

The AURA satellite is scheduled to be launched aboard a Delta II rocket out of Vandenberg, California in about two weeks.

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