September 14, 2016 – World View successfully completed a high-altitude balloon mission for the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) during a flight funded by the NASA Flight Opportunities Program (FOP) office. For this mission, WorldView lofted SwRI’s miniature solar observatory on a five-hour flight that reached a peak altitude of just over 103,000 feet.
World View launched the flight out of Benson Municipal Airport in Arizona at 7:05am MT on Saturday, September 3rd, 2016. The World View launch operations team coordinated with all local, regional, national and government authorities to ensure a safe and seamless mission operation. The payload and balloon were both safely returned to earth following the flight, and were recovered by World View personnel.
The SwRI Solar Instrument Pointing Platform (SSIPP) is a complete, high-precision solar observatory approximately the size of a mini fridge that weighs about 160 pounds. The observatory provides the optical precision equivalent to imaging a dime from a mile away.
SSIPP collects solar data using infrared, ultraviolet, or visible light instruments on an optical table, similar to those used in ground-based observatories but from a near-space environment. The surface of the Sun is covered with granular convection cells analogous to a pot of water at a rolling boil. Continuously, every 5 minutes, a million of these cells erupt, creating sound waves at a range of frequencies. The SwRI scientists used the observatory to search for the high-frequency solar sound waves, which are about eight octaves below the deepest audible notes. The unique frequency of these “solar ultrasound” waves makes them undetectable by ground-based observatories, but detectable after being lofted above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere via a World View balloon.
“The transfer of heat to the surface of our star is a violent and tremendously loud process,” said Principal Investigator Dr. Craig DeForest, a scientist in SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division in Boulder, Colorado. “Soundwaves heat the solar atmosphere to extremely high temperatures, but it’s a poorly understood process. Existing measurements of the solar infrasound cannot account for all the energy required.”
These experiments prove the efficacy of a new generation of low-cost solar observatory platforms that can enable researchers to regularly image the solar atmosphere to better understand its heat and noise properties. This breaks down traditional barriers to science by allowing a low-cost platform for solar research.
“This novel, low-cost prototype was developed for less than $1 million, which is one-tenth of the cost of comparable balloon-borne observatories,” said DeForest.
This flight wasn’t World View’s first for the NASA FOP office. Over the past few years, World View has conducted a number of NASA funded high-altitude balloon missions, all from launch locations in Arizona. World View was also recently awarded two new NASA FOP contracts to conduct high-altitude balloon missions funded by the agency. Those flights are planned to launch in the near future from Tucson, Arizona or a nearby municipality.
“It has been extremely good working with World View,” said Paul De Leon, the NASA Flight Opportunities Campaign Manager. “The World View team’s professionalism and attention to detail contributes to a smooth payload integration and successful flights.”
World View is an approved NASA FOP commercial spaceflight services provider. Under the Flight Opportunities Program, NASA selects promising new space technologies from industry, academia, and government and links them with U.S. commercial spaceflight companies to provide the researchers access to relevant environments for flight testing. This helps NASA mature technology payloads for future space missions while simultaneously fostering growth in the commercial space industry.
“We’re thrilled with the success of this NASA FOP / SwRI balloon mission,” said World View Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Taber MacCallum. “We’re honored to know that NASA and other prominent research organizations trust our flight platform to enable important scientific progress and technology demonstrations.”
Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is one of the oldest and largest independent, non-profit, applied research and development organizations in the United States. It’s headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, but has a major presence in Boulder.