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Aircraft Astronomy

While preparing SWUIS for its flight on the Space Shuttle Discovery, Dr. Alan Stern and Dr. David Slater realized that the SWUIS system could be used to do a lot of useful astronomy from aircraft. To demonstrate this, Stern contacted the director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, George Abbey, and requested authorization to fly SWUIS with Stern aboard a high-altitude remote sensing WB-57 aircraft during the STS-85 shuttle flight.


Dr. Alan Stern prepares for takeoff in a WB-57 high-altitude remote sensing aircraft. Stern holds SWUIS-A, a modified version of the SwRI-developed telescope system. Stern, director of the Institute's Space Studies Department, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, is a planetary scientist and astrophysicist with a wide range of interests in astronomy.


The WB-57 is a highly modified, twin-jet engine aircraft with many of the capabilities of the famous U-2 spy planes. NASA maintains three in its inventory, two of which are based in Houston at Ellington Field. These aircraft are used by NASA for a wide variety of research missions. The goal was to create an aircraft instrument much like the shuttle SWUIS, and to obtain infrared images of comet Hale-Bopp from the stratosphere while SWUIS was obtaining ultraviolet data from orbit above. At the program's outset, Stern and Slater were told that NASA had never flown an outside researcher in the high-performance aircraft.

The flight program was approved, and the team immediately swung into action. Whereas they had more than a year to prepare for the STS-85 shuttle mission, only a few weeks were available to prepare for the aircraft flights. During that time the project's aircraft integration lead, Bill Tomlinson, a technical advisor in SwRI's Instrumentation and Space Research Division, and Slater put together the SWUIS-Aircraft (SWUIS-A) instrument in San Antonio, and then electrically interfaced it to the WB-57 at Ellington Field.

Meanwhile, Stern underwent a series of NASA flight physicals and a compressed WB-57 aircraft systems training course. Stern also took altitude chamber training, ejection seat training, and water survival school training at Pensacola Naval Air Station in order to be flight-certified for the WB-57, which was originally designed as a two-seat bomber. Stern also created and then validated a 16-page SWUIS aircraft operations checklist that planned every aspect of the aircraft effort.

Once STS-85 was under way, the WB-57 research missions began. Four flights to altitudes as high as 55,000 feet were staged. On the first flight, the team conducted daytime systems tests of SWUIS-A to verify its operations and performance for the night-time astronomy missions. Three night flights were then performed, providing dramatic demonstrations of SWUIS-A's capabilities for doing research from high-altitude platforms.

Stern and Slater are now leveraging their WB-57/Hale-Bopp flight experience into potential SWUIS projects using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as well as F-18 and other manned high-performance aircraft. Few institutions outside NASA can now match SwRI's current capabilities for flying astronomical research missions in high- performance aircraft.

Out the Window Technics Summer 1998 Technology Today
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