Three Utah State University experiments will be aboard Discovery for the space shuttle's next flight, scheduled March 9 from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
"They're packed and loaded in the canisters and waiting to be loaded" in the cargo bay for Discovery's planned eight-day flight for the Air Force and Defense Department, Frank Redd, director of the USU Center for Space Engineering, said Monday."We're so much involved in this flight, this is really a Cache Valley special," he said.
The primary USU research vehicle is CIRRIS, or Cryogenic Infrared Radiance Instrument for Shuttle, which includes a 2-ton, 9-foot-long telescope for measuring the upper atmosphere's aurora borealis.
"It's pure science kinds of stuff," Redd said, with applications to Star Wars, or the Strategic Defense Initiative program.
The aurora borealis appears in the northern hemisphere near the north magnetic pole. The luminous phenomenon is believed produced by atomic particles striking atoms in the ionosphere at least 35 miles above the earth. Aurora australis occurs around the south magnetic pole.
"It's not a well-understood phenomena. We're trying to understand it in much more detail," he said.
Once scientists have an understanding of the components of the upper atmosphere, they also can detect other objects against that "background," including ballistic missiles.
"This is probably our most important work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration" in about 30 space projects, said Redd. USU acted as the prime contractor on the telescope, which will remain in Discovery's open cargo bay during the flight.
CIRRIS also will have two companions, the Infrared Background Signature Survey (IBSS) and the Shuttle Kinetic Infrared Test (SKIRT). IBSS was built in Germany and calibrated at USU, while SKIRT was made by Space Systems Engineering, a USU spin-off company located in the university's Research and Technology Park.
"IBSS will be doing some of the same things" as CIRRIS in providing atmospheric readings, he said, and it also will monitor the shuttle's thruster rockets while floating alongside Discovery. It then will be recovered before shuttle re-entry.
SKIRT will remain in the cargo bay and study the shuttle's visible aura, which could be caused by several factors, Redd said. Each shuttle could have a "signature" glow, he said, different from the others.
"We're interested in finding out how big it is, how far it extends beyond the spacecraft," he said.