Snagging a high fly ball

August 06, 1999

Perseids Live! balloon flight planned At the height of the baseball season, NASA is going to stretch deep into the outfield to catch bits of a falling star. But it'll be a night game,in the wee hours of Aug. 12 or 13 (next Thursday or Friday) when the Perseids meteor stream is high in the sky.

The outfield is big, but the mitt and the flyballs are small, so NASA is counting on quantity and a little luck to snare one or two. Web viewers at home will get a chance to see the more impressive fireballs, glowing as if they were hot line-drives.

The Perseids Live! balloon flight to about 33.5 km (110,000 ft) altitude will be NASA/Marshall's third mission to capture materials of cosmic origin before they are incinerated by entry into Earth's atmosphere or contact with the ground if they survive entry.

NASA/Marshall's first two flights were in November 1998 during the Leonids meteor shower and April 1999 during a meteor minimum to provide a proper comparison. On Perseids Live!, NASA/Marshall will continue experimenting with several types of capture media to see how they fare at high altitude, and with new equipment for tracking and imagery.

"We'll be carrying a new 12-channel GPS receiver and an astronomical-type CCD camera," said Ed Myszka, an amateur radio operator who has conducted a number of balloon launches. Myszka works for CSC at NASA/Marshall's Science Directorate.

GPS - the Global Positioning System - uses timing signals from satellites in high Earth orbit to calculate the receiver's position. The 12-channel system should measure the Perseids Live! balloon's horizontal location to within 100 meters (328 feet) and its altitude to within 152 meters (500 ft).

"That's within the size of a football field," Myszka said. "That's fairly good accuracy."

The payload will also include a new charge-coupled device (CCD) camera, an electronic retina similar in some basic respects to the Wide Field Camera aboard the Hubble Space Telescope.

"This one was designed for use at the eyepiece by amateur astronomers," Myszka said. "We added a lens to give a wide-angle view."

The camera is more sensitive to light than the camera carried on the two previous missions, and has about double the resolution. Web viewers should have a better view of background stars and bolides - meteors' fiery trails - than on the two earlier missions.

The radio downlink, power supply, and other equipment are taken from the earlier missions. The transmitter also will be the same and will broadcast on channel 58 for cable-ready TV.

The payload itself will use a larger frame, 20x20x72 cm (8x8x28 in). That in turn will allow more room for capture devices. Several different materials, which will be selected presently, will be tested for their ability to withstand the trip to the edge of space (at about 18 km/hr [1,000 ft/minute]) and back, and a total duration of two hours.

The area-time product - 480 square centimeters for 2 hours - is comparable to that of a 1965 sounding rocket flight [a brief exposure with a larger sample area] which failed to return any detectable Leonid meteoroids.

Myszka said that the balloon package probably will not travel as far as the two previous balloons did.

"It will probably return to Earth closer to us," he said, "because the winds aloft have shifted as compared to the November 1998 and April 1999 launches." He anticipates landing will occur within 50 km (about 30 mi) of Redstone Arsenal where NASA/Marshall is located.

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center--Space Sciences Laboratory

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