Tucson-based researchers have won two of the 12 awards NASA gives
annually to turn science-fiction concepts into reality.
UA astronomy professor Christopher Walker wants to build a 10-meter suborbital telescope that is essentially an aluminized mylar balloon, while Thomas Prettyman of the Planetary Science Institute wants to build instruments for spacecraft that would take full-body scans of asteroids and comets.
Both researchers will receive $100,000 in phase 1 of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program and can apply for an additional $500,000 if further development if their ideas looks promising. The awards were announced Friday.
Walker, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona, proposes to build a balloon whose aluminized half would form a 10-meter mirror that could either be aimed at targets in space or turned toward Earth from its suborbital position for remote sensing and communications. It would operate at radio to submillimeter frequencies.
It would have the advantage of being above most of the distorting effects of water vapor in the atmosphere.
The telescope would be surrounded by a larger balloon, the size of a football field. It would carry the telescope up to 120,000 feet above sea level and then serve as a stabilizing mount and protective radome once it is positioned.
Walker's group at Steward Observatory has lots of experience with balloon-launched instruments, which he calls the "poor man's space telescopes" because they avoid the $200 million cost of the average rocket launch.
Prettyman, who led the instrument team for NASA's Dawn mission that recently probed beneath the surface of the protoplanet Vesta, proposes to use the high- energy particles generated by galactic cosmic rays to determine the structure and density of comets and asteroids.
Particles such as muons, Prettyman says in his abstract, can penetrate a kilometer deep, making it possible to define the entire structure of near-Earth objects, gathering information about comet geysers and asteroid formation. The research would also influence strategies to keep them from hitting the Earth.
Building an imaging sensor that would capture the direction of the radiation and reveal a picture of the inner structure is possible, he said, but he doesn't know yet if it will work. "The object of the program is to take things that look like science fiction and see whether or not they are feasible," he said.
"I don't necessarily believe it will work. That's the whole idea," Prettyman said.
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