Students To Take First Glimpse Of High Atmospheric Winds

Jul 10, 2014

Undergraduate researchers from Utah State University will soon attach an experiment onto a balloon the size of a stadium. The experiment has been years in the making. USU was selected to take part in a new NASA initiative that aims to involve students in research that could make an impact on the scientific community.

Scientists are using the principals of the Doppler effect to understand winds in the upper atmosphere.
Scientists are using the principals of the Doppler effect to understand winds in the upper atmosphere.
Credit Utah State University

Student Team Leader and System Engineer Landon Terry describes what the experiment looks like.

“Well, it’s about a foot and a half by a foot by about a foot tall and it looks like kind of a shoe box,” said Terry.

It’s what’s inside the shoebox that is interesting to scientists. Nestled inside a thermally-regulated blanket of insulation is the technology these researchers hope will teach us about the Earth’s atmosphere. It is also guided by instruments that keep track of the positions of the stars and the sun in the sky, which let students know where in the atmosphere the silver shoebox is floating,

“This is a wind sensor, but before you think you know what that means, it’s measuring winds at an attitude of 200-300 km. 200-300 km is the lower range where satellites fly,” said Allen Marchant, professor of electrical engineering at USU.

Marchant said winds that high in the atmosphere haven’t been measured before, but they are important in understanding and predicting earth’s climate.

The space shoebox will be taking measurements of the red light emitted by elemental or single oxygen atoms. Just like the changing frequency of a siren as it drives past you, the researchers can look at the changing wavelength of light emitted by the atoms to understand the wind.

“This payload includes an instrument that observes Doppler shift of red light emitted by the far upper atmosphere and by measuring the wavelength of that light, we can determine the speed of the winds at those very high altitudes,” Marchant said.

The team will be launching the test flight in August and hopes to use the data collected this time around to prepare for a global study, in which the sensors would be attached to small satellites.

Tune in July 18 as UPR delves deeper into the student’s upper atmosphere research.