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NASA promises balloon ride and über precise 'scope pointer for planet-gazing boffins

'Track a dime at two miles' with the Wallops Arc Second Pointer

Cassini image of Jupiter. Pic: NASA

NASA has come up with a new pointing system named WASP (Wallops Arc Second Pointer) which gets planetary scientists closer to their target worlds.

The Wallops Arc Second Pointer (WASP) payload suspended from a crane during a test deployment

The Wallops Arc Second Pointer (WASP) payload suspended from a crane during a test deployment. Credit: NASA

Most astroboffins who want to study the Earth, the Sun or nearby stars have a low-cost option to do so: high altitude balloons that float their telescopes into the stratosphere.

But up until now, planetary researchers haven't been able to use balloons because they need a system that can accurately point their instruments and track their targets through the Solar System.

The space agency's new WASP system, however, can, pointing with sub arc-second accuracy and stability.

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

Instead of having to develop pointing systems for each mission, WASP allows scientists to focus on their instruments, knowing it can do the pointing for them.

To test the system, which is designed to be highly flexible and support many science payloads, a boffin interested in studying Jupiter and other planetary bodies is getting ready to test-drive the device this year.

WASP has already been flight-tested, with the latest test using a 30-storey balloon to lift an engineers' test unit of the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science (HySICS) to nearly 122,000 feet, far above most of Earth's atmosphere. There the system accurately pointed HySICS to take radiance measurements of the Earth, Sun and Moon.

This September will see the inaugural flight of the Observatory for Planetary Investigations from the Stratosphere (OPIS), which will study Jupiter and planets beyond the Solar System.

"Time for planetary observations on ground-based observatories is difficult to obtain," said OPIS Principal Investigator Terry Hurford.

"Moreover, high-altitude balloons above 95 per cent 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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