JPL Presenters Will Point to Ballooning as "Scrappy Engineering," A "Last Bastion of Guerilla Science"

Published : Tuesday, February 5, 2019 | 6:32 PM


“The great problem is at length solved! The air, as well as the earth and the ocean, has been subdued by science, and will become a common and convenient highway for mankind. The Atlantic has been actually crossed in a Balloon!” “The New York Sun” as quoted by Edgar Allan Poe in “The Balloon Hoax”

The mission Poe was writing about turned out to be a hoax, but a pair of JPL Theordore von Kármán Lecture Series talks about ballooning in today’s scientific firmament will assert the value of dirigible research.

The sponsors point out that, while balloons may seem a technology more pegged to Poe’s time than our own, they represent a cheaper, faster method than a rocket for scientists and engineers to get hardware and instruments above the Earth’s atmosphere.

It is, according to the lecturers, a “last bastion of guerilla science.”

“Balloon missions, because of their relatively low cost and unique risk profile, often operate using a less-glamorous, even ‘scrappy’ approach to engineering compared to what we typically see for space missions,” said, Laura Jones-Wilson, a systems engineer at JPL.

She noted that payloads on balloons can be reused, a fact that allows small teams to build, test, learn, dust off, and build again in a tight engineering cycle. Balloons can and do launch from inhospitable, remote places.

“These conditions can lead to a can-do, self-reliant ballooning culture that echoes the early days of the nascent aerospace industry,” said Jones-Wilson, who will deliver one of two lectures, Feb. 7 and 8.

Jones-Wilson will discuss how young researchers can grasp guerilla science through ballooning and complete important work before moving onto major missions at the National Aerospace and Space Administration.

“Balloon missions can be used to gain a tactical flash of insight or can be used to build powerful story arcs over time,” said Jones-Wilson. “Think of them as the graphic novel of scientific missions!”

The other speaker is Jose Siles, a research engineer at JPL.

Siles will recount his experiences on the STO-2 mission studying star birth in the universe. The telescope used in the research “sees” at a light wavelength that is blocked by Earth’s atmosphere. To conduct the study, it was necessary to get that telescope above the Earth’s atmosphere.

The balloon was chosen as the way to go, because the launch platform is cheaper than a rocket, and there is less testing and documentation required than for its jet-powered cohort.

According to Siles, there have been some 10,000 scientific balloon missions since the early 20th century, so the technology as guerilla science has kept a foothold in the research world, co-existing with later iterations of the flying sciences.

Prior to assuming her post at JPL, Jones-Wilson earned a bachelor of science degree at Virginia Tech. Her master of science and doctorate in aerospace engineering were obtained from Cornell University. She joined JPL in 2012, and currently works on the Europa Clipper mission.

Jose Siles received his masters and doctorate in electrical engineering at Technical University of Madrid. He is a Fullbright postdoctoral research award winner. His work has led him to Rome, Paris and Antarctica. At JPL he is working on the next generation of submillimeter-wave, high-spectral resolution cameras for astrophysics, planetary science and Earth science.

The lectures are part of the JPL-sponsored Theodore von Kármán Lecture Series. Each scientist will hold forth for about 20-25 minutes on Feb. 7, 7 p.m. at JPL’s von Karman Auditorium, 4800 Oak Road Drive, and on Feb. 8, 7 p.m., at Caltech’s Ramo Auditorium, 1200 East California Blvd.







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