One of the payloads the crew of the space shuttle Discovery will put into orbit next month is composed mostly of equipment and experiments constructed at Utah State University - which is better known for its agriculture department.
While much of USU's research is on making farm crops grow better, one NASA official has dubbed it "Utah Space University."While problems might cause a delay on the next launch of the shuttle, set for March 9, USU students and faculty are excited about one of its primary payloads.
CIRRIS 1A, an infrared sensor designed and manufactured at the Space Dynamics Lab at USU for the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory, Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass.
CIRRIS stands for Cryogenic Infrared Radiance Instrument for Shuttle. A cryogenically-cooled optical instrument, CIRRIS's telescope portion measures 9 feet in length and will examine the upper reaches of the Earth's atmosphere and the aurora so scientists can determine their makeup and dynamic behavior.
It's one of three experiments built by USU's space lab, and it weighs about two tons.
The telescope will also have unnamed applications to the nation's Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" program, said Frank Redd, director of the school's Center for Space Engineering.
Also on board will be the Infrared Background Signature Survey and the Shuttle Kinetic Infrared Test. The IBSS was built in Germany and calibrated at USU; SKIRT was made by Space Systems Engineering, a USU spinoff firm located at the university's Research and Technology Park.
IBSS has a purpose similar to CIRRIS, but it will look at the atmosphere from a vantage point outside the shuttle, while CIRRIS remains inside the shuttle cargo bay. IBSS will also look at the shuttle itself to map the infrared emission from shuttle thrusting systems.
SKIRT will measure the infrared signature of the "shuttle glow" which was first discovered in 1982 during deployment of a USU experiment on the third shuttle flight.
Scientists do not know just what causes "shuttle glow," Redd said, and it is hoped SKIRT will help explain the phenomenon. Additionally, scientists may learn that objects have unique infrared signatures that can be measured and used to identify objects in space.
"We're interested in finding out how big it is, how far it extends beyond the spacecraft," Redd said.
CIRRIS will help scientists understand the makeup of the upper atmosphere, Redd said, and therefore scientists will better understand the dynamics of atmospheric phenomenon and be able to discriminate objects in high atmospheric, or low orbits, from their backgrounds.
It is cryogenically cooled to temperatures just degrees above absolute zero because the infrared sensors are so sensitive that any heat produced by CIRRIS itself would mask the signals, Redd said.
The aurora borealis is seen in the northern hemisphere and is believed to be produced by atomic particles striking atoms in the ionosphere about 35 miles above the Earth.
When scientists can understand details of the upper atmosphere, they will be able to better detect other objects against that background, including missiles.