USU instrument to probe global warming

By Lynze Wardle
The Standard-Examiner
June 10, 2005

LOGAN -- The scientific world is one step closer to understanding global warming, thanks to an instrument designed and engineered at Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory.

Tuesday, researchers launched an infrared sensor the size of a minivan into the atmosphere above Fort Sumner, N.M., to measure the air's radiation content. The $3 million, 3,000-pound prototype was lifted 20 miles into the stratosphere by a huge balloon, where it recorded energy levels coming off the Earth.

After recording five hours of data and transmitting results back to Earth, the remote-controlled sensor, known as Far-Infrared Spectroscopy of the Troposphere, or FIRST, parachuted safely back to the New Mexican desert.

"It's a huge leap in technology. Nothing before was capable of working in this near-space altitude," Harry Ames, deputy director of the Space Dynamics Laboratory, said. "We don't know if global warming really exists or not, so this is key data to have."

Ames said FIRST has an "electronic eye," which allows it to see types of atmospheric radiation scientists have never been able to accurately measure before. He said the first of what will be many test-flights for the prototype went off without a hitch.

"Every time you try something new, it's always scary, especially when you are launching something into space," Ames said. "What worked great on the ground doesn't always work in the air, so we just kept our fingers crossed and hoped that the technology gods would smile down on us."

The experiment was conducted by a team of scientists, engineers and technicians from the Space Dynamics Laboratory, NASA's Langley Research Center and Harvard University. FIRST program manager Stan Wellard said the Space Dynamics Laboratory hopes to create a satellite version of the sensor within four to six years.

The satellites would orbit the edge of space, measuring the amount of energy absorbed by Earth and the amount lost.

"It would give insight into whether global warming is a reality or not and help settle the debate once and for all," Wellard said.

Located in North Logan, the Space Dynamics Laboratory is a nonprofit organization owned by Utah State University. Ames said it has conducted atmospheric research projects for NASA, the Department of Defense and others for more than 40 years and employs 350 people.

Copyright © 2005 by Ogden Publishing Corporation