February 1, 1996
Flare Genesis Solar Observatory Completes Antarctic Balloon Flight
A powerful solar observatory developed by The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) and the USAF Phillips Laboratory using a never-flown "Star Wars" telescope landed safely Jan. 26 in Antarctica after a 19-day balloon flight to probe the mysteries of solar flares.
Known as the Flare Genesis Experiment, the two-ton observatory lifted off from near McMurdo Station in Antarctica on Jan. 7 beneath a huge NASA balloon filled with 28 million cubic feet of helium. Flare Genesis then rode the counterclockwise summer winds circling the South Pole at an altitude of 125,000 feet. The data payload was recovered on Jan. 31 and returned to researchers at JHU/APL in Laurel, Md.
The observatory's 80-cm (32-inch) telescope -- the most powerful ever flown for solar research and the second largest solar telescope in existence -- was designed to map the sun's magnetic fields with 10 times the resolution of ground-based instruments. When analysis of the 10,000 images obtained during the flight is complete, the Flare Genesis Experiment may have provided the sharpest view ever of the evolution of activity on the sun and the nature of solar variability.
"Flare Genesis could lead to a revolution in understanding solar flares and sunspot regions, and it promises improved forecasts of solar eruptions and their effects on Earth," says solar physicist Dr. David Rust, principal investigator for the Flare Genesis Experiment at JHU/APL. The project is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the USAF Office of Scientific Research.
Solar flares are violent bursts of charged particles from the sun that can erupt with the energy equivalent of a hundred million 25-megaton nuclear bombs. Flares cause powerful "geomagnetic" storms on Earth that disrupt communications systems, overload electricity transmission grids, and threaten the survival of astronauts in deep space.
Summertime in Antarctica offers round-the-clock sunlight, plus the opportunity for a high-altitude perch above 99 percent of the Earth's atmosphere. "This was the first unblinking, high-resolution look we've had at the sun's surface magnetic fields," Dr. Rust says. The best previous observations -- during the Spacelab shuttle mission in 1985 -- lasted 41 minutes, with much less resolution than that of Flare Genesis.
The observatory's large telescope was built for a Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (now Ballistic Missile Defense Organization) mission known as Starlab. The never-flown telescope was donated to the Flare Genesis project through the USAF Phillips Laboratory in Albuquerque, NM. Its compact size and graphite-epoxy composite frame make the telescope ideal for a weight-conscious balloon flight.
The primary Flare Genesis instrument is the JHU/APL-built solar vector magnetograph, similar to one successfully demonstrated by Dr. Rust and his team at the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, NM. Basically a high-resolution polarimeter, the magnetograph can precisely determine the magnitude and direction of the sun's surface magnetic fields.
"Flare Genesis was designed to look at features as small as 100 miles across on the surface," says Dr. Rust. "That's important, because we suspect that the key to understanding flares is in the tiniest, not the largest, magnetic features on the sun." Solar flares are thought to originate in magnetic field instabilities in the sun's atmosphere.
The just-completed mission could be the first in a series of annual reflights of the observatory. The flights are expected to furnish the basic scientific understanding and practical engineering experience to design and operate a sun-monitoring observatory in space. By the time of the next peak of solar activity in 2000, the Flare Genesis equipment will have been fine-tuned and proven through several flight cycles, Dr. Rust says.
The JHU/APL Flare Genesis team includes Graham Murphy, project scientist; Kim Strohbehn, chief engineer; David Lohr, computer engineer; John Hayes, computer engineer; Harry Eaton, electronic engineer; and Russell Cain, payload engineer. Co-investigators are Steve Keil of Phillips Laboratory and Christoph Keller of the National Solar Observatory. Also participating are programmer Phil Wiborg of Phillips Lab and Ashok Kumar, JHU/APL graduate student.
The Flare Genesis gondola was based on a design by the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA. Phillips Laboratory provided the on-board high resolution electronic camera and computer programs that directed the telescope when it was out of radio contact during its circumpolar flight. Meer Instruments of San Diego, CA, provided the solar panels and power control system for the observatory.
For more information, contact APL Public Information Officer Helen Worth; phone: 240-228-5113 or 410-778-5113.
Broadcast-quality B-roll video of the Flare Genesis Experiment is available upon request. The Flare Genesis homepage can be accessed on the World Wide Web at http://sd-www.jhuapl.edu/FlareGenesis/flare.html.