NASA balloon carries USU infrared sensor into skies over New Mexico

Device may offer clues on how Earth gains, loses energy
By Joe Bauman
Deseret News
June 10, 2005

A huge balloon lifted majestically into the New Mexico sky this week, carrying a payload to an altitude of 25 miles, where conditions are like those in space. The payload was an instrument that may give researchers answers about some of the most vexing problems in science, questions about global warming.

A NASA balloon begins to lift a USU-built device into the air Tuesday at Fort Sumner, N.M. The balloon soared to an altitude of 25 miles.

A NASA balloon begins to lift a USU-built device into the air Tuesday at Fort Sumner, N.M. The balloon soared to an altitude of 25 miles.
Joe Bauman, Deseret Morning News

The device was a prototype infrared sensor built by Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan. Called the Far-Infrared Spectroscopy of the Troposphere Instrument, it was three years in the building.

Once the NASA balloon reached its target altitude, the extremely low air pressure allowed it to expand to its greatest girth, about 300 feet in diameter.

Hovering high above Earth below that sphere, the 1,500-pound instrument took infrared readings of the air below. Meanwhile, a passing satellite made other observations of the same site, providing a backup check.

The instrument is designed to measure the cooling and heating of the atmosphere, a project scientists hope will help them learn "how the Earth gains and loses energy," says a release by NASA.

Stan Wellard, the lab's program manager for the instrument, explained that the device will measure energy flow. It can measure heat from sunlight, which shows up in the infrared realm of the spectrum.

Data came in about chemical constituents in the troposphere, which extends from the planet's surface to an altitude of 10 miles. The balloon was "about another 10 miles above that," he said. The instrument was "looking straight down into that ocean of air we live in."

It is designed to measure the way different constituents of the atmosphere's gases absorb and release energy. Energy from sunlight is exchanged by clouds and air and radiated into space.

"Everybody's handing energy off to their neighbor, and then getting it back," he said.

Eventually, researchers would like such an instrument to circle Earth aboard a satellite. The test this week was a demonstration flight, testing the concept.

"The downstream goal is look at the global warming issue. This measures wavelengths where we've not done a lot of work," Wellard said.

Some scientists believe global warming is taking place, while others don't think there is an issue. "This machine is a first step toward a satellite version that could gather more data, maybe get some answers in that area," Wellard said.

Overall, if more energy flows off the planet and into space, global cooling may be taking place; if it's the other way around, that could mean heating.

The lift-off was impressive, he said.

"It's a very stately, very slow rise from the Earth. It just serenely goes up into the sky."

Watching the balloon take off was a great experience, he added. "There's something about a balloon. . . . It brings out the child in you. You can't help it."

Throughout Tuesday, the team was able to peer through the clear air of New Mexico and watch the distant balloon.

It rose 25 miles and drifted about 60 miles, still in sight. "The winds were very light and it didn't go far," Wellard said in a telephone interview. The instrument collected about 15,000 scans, which are to be analyzed soon.

According to a NASA press release, Marty Mlynczak, principal investigator for the project and a senior research scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., said the instrument opens "an entirely new window to observe the Earth and its atmosphere."

When the time came for the end of the experiment, signals radioed to the target fired off a device that separated the instrument gondola from the balloon. It descended via parachute, taking 45 minutes to reach the ground.

At first, the gondola "falls like a rock because there's not much air up there." The parachute then slowed the instrument when it reached denser air. It came to ground close to where recovery crews were stationed, about 20 miles southeast of Santa Rosa, N.M.

"It was in quite good shape," he said. "They actually had the recovery crew sitting right there, and it came down on its parachute and it went right over top of them, about 100 feet over their heads."

Also recovered was the balloon itself, which can't be reused. Commanded to release its helium, it came down about five miles from where the gondola landed.

"One of these balloons weighs about 2,000 pounds, and it's like 2,000 pounds of garbage bags," Wellard said. "It's a lot of material that they want to dispose of, so they go get it, too."

© 2005 Deseret News Publishing Company