A NASA instrument package that may one day study the atmospheres of Mars or Venus will fly aboard adventurer/businessman Steve Fossett's Solo Spirit balloon as he makes his second attempt to be the first person to fly around the world solo.
The prototype instrumentation is being provided by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to measure latitude, longitude and elevation, temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity and vertical wind velocity. Washington University in St. Louis, MO, which is mission control for Fossett's attempt, invited JPL to fly the scientific payload.
"NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is actively developing a program to fly balloons in the atmospheres of other planets. We are very excited with this opportunity to test this payload in Earth's atmosphere and are looking forward to the data that could be applied to our future missions," said Dr. Jonathan M. Cameron, payload team leader at JPL. Other JPL members of the team are Aaron D. Bachelder, Robert V. Ivlev and David P. McGee.
Eventually, a version of the NASA prototype may fly in the atmosphere of Mars or Venus on a robotic balloon called an aerobot. Like Fossett's balloon, the aerobot would vary its altitude to steer through the atmosphere.
NASA/JPL will receive raw data from the payload telemetry system through a commercial satellite system. Data will be converted into scientific measurements and relayed to Washington University, where the information will be made available to the public via a web site.
The science payload will gather information from the troposphere, the lowest layer of Earth's atmosphere, during a continuous, two-week period as the balloon flies through the mid- northern latitudes. Fossett's balloon is expected to fly at an average altitude of about 7,000 meters (24,000 feet).
"This experiment will simulate a planetary mission with an aerobot payload mounted on the balloon," said Dr. Raymond E. Arvidson, professor and chair of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University and science coordinator for the payload. "The observations to be made during Solo Spirit's flight offer an outstanding opportunity to educate the public on the characteristics and dynamics of the lower atmosphere."
A low fuel supply and other problems ended Fossett's earlier solo flight attempt on Jan. 20, 1997. Nonetheless, he set a new balloon distance record at 16,673.81 kilometers (10,360.61 miles).
Fossett will again launch from St. Louis' Busch Stadium when flying conditions are optimal. This winter's flight is expected to last 15 days. The launch window opens in mid-December and closes at the end of January 1998.
"This circumnavigation of the Earth by Solo Spirit will provide valuable experience to JPL in carrying out planetary aerobot missions," said Dr. James A. Cutts, manager of the JPL's Special Projects Office. "We will soon have the technological capability to carry out aerobot missions to circumnavigate both Mars and Venus that will collect unique scientific observations to complement the information obtained by orbiting spacecraft and surface vehicles."
After Fossett's flight, Washington University will publish all of the science data on NASA's Planetary Data System Geosciences Node, housed at the university and accessible through the Internet.
The scientific payload is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, for NASA's Office of Mission to Planet Earth, Washington, DC.
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