A new major scientific payload flew in
space last week after launching aboard a NASA suborbital Black Brant rocket.
The payload, consisting of a telescope/spectrometer combination and an
image-intensified imaging system, successfully explored the ultraviolet
spectrum of the planet Mercury and also searched for the long-sought belt of
small bodies called Vulcanoids that may lie even closer to the Sun than
Mercury. Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) provided the payload and is
responsible for data analysis.

“The rocket flew a textbook flight and got the goods on our calibration star
(Zeta Ophiuchus), Mercury and the Moon — everything in the flight plan,”
says Dr. Alan Stern, mission principal investigator and director of the SwRI
Space Studies Department. “The secondary payload, the so-called VULCAM
(Vulcanoid camera) imager, also worked like a champ, searching for
Vulcanoids while the spectrograph studied Mercury itself.”

The payload’s main instrument is a large (almost 500 pound), highly
sensitive, ultraviolet spectrograph designed to observe objects too close to
the Sun for the Hubble Space Telescope and other orbital instruments to
view. The new SwRI instrument has been dubbed “Big Dog” by its inventors,
owing to the large size of the payload.

“We built Big Dog specifically to fill a niche — exploring objects in the
deep inner solar system,” explains SwRI’s Dr. David Slater, project
scientist for the instrument and leader of the field team that took the
payload to White Sands for the launch preparations and flight. “This flight
proves we can now examine objects — like Venus, Mercury and bright comets
close to the Sun — that are normally lost in the Sun’s glare to orbiting
telescopes, on a routine basis. This is a real asset for planetary astronomy
and for certain kinds of astrophysics as well.”

VULCAM scientist Dr. Dan Durda, also of SwRI, added, “VULCAM is a derivative
of an imaging instrument we have flown many times on F-18 aircraft, but
which has the potential to become an even more powerful tool for searching
for Vulcanoids from 260+ kilometer (165+ mile) altitudes that NASA
suborbital missions can reach. VULCAM also performed flawlessly.”

“Never before in history has it been possible to obtain an ultraviolet
spectrum of Mercury,” says Stern. “With the data gathered last week, we
expect to reveal new details about this mysterious inner planet’s surface
composition and, hopefully, to help the upcoming NASA MESSENGER mission to
Mercury plan its ultraviolet observations.”

Primary funding for this mission came from NASA, with supplemental support
from The Planetary Society. The NASA Wallops Island Flight Facility managed
the mission and provided both the launch vehicle and the pointing, telemetry
and recovery systems required to support the flight. The Center for
Astrophysics and Space Astronomy at the University of Colorado at Boulder
also collaborated on the mission.

Vulcanoids are a hypothesized population of small asteroids that is
exceedingly difficult to observe from the ground because of its proximity to
the Sun. Researchers have made previous ground-based searches for Vulcanoids
during total solar eclipses, during the brief twilight period after sunset
before the Vulcanoids themselves set or just before sunrise after the
Vulcanoids have peaked above the horizon.

Editors: An image of the rocket is available at www.swri.org/press/bdpr.htm.

More information on the Wallops Island Flight Facility is available at
www.wff.nasa.gov, the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy is at
casa.colorado.edu, the MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space Environment,
Geochemistry and Ranging) mission is at messenger.jhuapl.edu and The
Planetary Society is at www.planetary.org.