Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 13, 1995

APL's 'Star Wars' Telescope to Probe Sun's Spots and Flares

Luther Young
Applied Physics Laboratory

     A powerful solar observatory developed by the Applied
Physics Laboratory and the USAF Phillips Laboratory using a
never-flown "Star Wars" telescope is on schedule to probe the
mysteries of solar flares from high above Antarctica in December.

     Known as the Flare Genesis Experiment, the observatory will
be launched as early as Dec. 10 from near McMurdo Station on the
Ross Sea. Rising to an altitude of 125,000 feet, the
balloon-borne Flare Genesis is scheduled to ride the
counterclockwise winds circling the South Pole for up to four

     The observatory's 32-inch telescope--the most powerful ever
flown for solar research and the second largest solar telescope
in existence--will map the sun's magnetic fields with 10 times
the resolution of ground-based instruments. The observations are
expected to provide the sharpest view ever of the evolution of
activity on the sun and the nature of solar variability.

     "Flare Genesis could lead to a revolution in understanding
solar flares and sunspot regions, and it promises improved
forecasts of solar eruptions and their effects on Earth," said
solar physicist David Rust, principal investigator for the Flare
Genesis Experiment at APL in Laurel, Md. The project is sponsored
by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the USAF Office of
Scientific Research.

     Solar flares are violent bursts of charged particles from
the sun that can erupt with the energy equivalent of a hundred
million 25-megaton nuclear bombs. Flares cause powerful
geomagnetic storms on Earth that disrupt communications systems,
overload electricity transmission grids and threaten the survival
of astronauts in deep space.

     The two-ton, $16 million Flare Genesis observatory will be
launched into the Antarctic stratosphere beneath a NASA balloon
filled with 28 million cubic feet of helium. Rust plans a base
mission of 10 to 14 days, or one full polar circuit, with the
potential for two circuits and nearly four weeks of observations
if conditions are favorable.

     Summertime in Antarctica offers round-the-clock sunlight,
plus the opportunity for a high-altitude perch above 99 percent
of the Earth's atmosphere. 

     "This is the first unblinking, high-resolution look we've
had at the sun's surface magnetic fields," Rust said. The best
previous observations--during the Spacelab shuttle mission in
1985--lasted 41 minutes, with much less resolution than that of
Flare Genesis.

     The observatory's large telescope was built for a Strategic
Defense Initiative mission known as Starlab. The never-flown
telescope was donated to the project through the Phillips
Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M. Its compact size and
graphite-epoxy composite frame make the telescope ideal for a
weight-conscious balloon flight.

     Other major features include a sophisticated pointing system
capable of maintaining 0.1 arc/second stability, the best ever
achieved by a balloon-borne observatory. An estimated 100,000
solar images will be collected during the mission. Several
thousand images will be relayed to Antarctic ground stations in
real time; most will be stored in on-board tape recorders for
retrieval after the balloon lands.

     The primary Flare Genesis instrument is the APL-built solar
vector magnetograph, similar to one successfully demonstrated by
Rust and his team at the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot,
N.M. Basically a high-resolution polarimeter, the magnetograph
can precisely determine the magnitude and direction of the sun's
surface magnetic fields.

     "We'll be able to look at features as small as 100 miles
across on the surface," Rust said. "That's important, because we
suspect that the key to understanding flares is in the tiniest,
not the largest, magnetic features on the sun." Solar flares are
thought to originate in magnetic field instabilities in the sun's

     The 1995 Flare Genesis mission could be the first in a
series of annual reflights of the observatory. The flights are
expected to furnish the basic scientific understanding and
practical engineering experience to design and operate a
sun-monitoring observatory in space. By the time of the next peak
of solar activity in 2000, the Flare Genesis equipment will have
been fine-tuned and proven through several flight cycles," Rust

Symposium Focuses on 
Research and Development

     The Third Symposium on Research and Development, which took
place Nov. 7 and 8 at the Applied Physics Laboratory, attracted
250 participants. Presentations in research areas ranged from
biomedical engineering to space physics to undersea acoustics.

     The semiannual event, begun in 1991, is held to foster
internal communication and raise awareness of promising new
research at APL, said Michael Thomas, chairman of the
laboratory's Fleet Systems Department.

     Gary Smith, APL director, called the symposium "an
opportunity to share what's going on at the elemental level, at
the forefront, the cutting-edge things that will help keep us
strong." Smith emphasized the new business development potential
in many of the showcased research projects.

     The symposium also featured collaborations with other
Hopkins divisions and with academic, industry and government

     In addition to the nine APL departments represented,
participants included researchers from the university's
departments of Mechanical Engineering and Pharmacology, UMBC, the
United States Naval Academy, George Washington University and
Salisbury State University.

     Twenty-two oral and 56 poster presentations were made in
eight broad research areas: information science and applications;
sensors and sensing; electrical, optical and structural
materials; mathematical and physical sciences; space physics and
satellite technology; transportation; biomedical research; and
environmental research.

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