America's space shuttle Columbia has opened a new kind of research opportunity for space scientists. Because the shuttle itself is reusable, so, potentially, are any instruments or scientific experiments it carries. No longer must equipment be built to the rigorous, and expensive, standards required when it has to function unattended for long periods in orbit. This cost-cutting advantage, plus the fact that astronauts can help operate instruments, means that more investigators now can do a wider range of science than ever before in space.
If instruments lose accuracy in orbit, they can be recalibrated when returned to Earth. Scientists then can often compensate for the inaccuracies. If an experiment fails, it can be reflown on a subsequent shuttle mission. Also, long-term studies can be made over a number of years with instruments being sent up from time to time as needed.
All of these advantages were demonstrated with the scientific payload carried by Columbia on its second test flight in November. Having made preliminary studies of their results, the investigators now say they generally are delighted with the research possibilities of the shuttle.
The thunderstorm study is typical. For this, astronauts Richard Truly and Joe Engle used a standard movie camera and photocells to photograph thunderheads and record lightning flashes. Because failure of one of their fuel cell electric generators forced them to cut their time in orbit from five days to 54 hours, the astronauts got only a little film footage and recorded only one lightning flash. However, principal investigator Bernard Vonnegut of the State University of New York at Albany says the potential for this kind of thunderstorm study has been proved. With quite inexpensive equipment and making little demand on astronaut time or capability, he now has the prospect of making detailed observations of thunderstorms from the perspective of space.
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