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Scott Murphy's
Questions and Answers

Scott Murphy's NIGHTGLOW Page
Scott Murphy's Field Journal from 2003 Campaign

2003 Campaign
Wildlife Seen on the 2003 Campaign
Vehicles Seen on the 2003 Campaign

While in Australia, Scott answered questions from Trinity School,
where his son is in second grade.

Scott is now back home.

Go right to the questions...

This "Question and Answer" website is a great way for us at NASA to let people know what we are doing and get students and teachers around the world involved in the space program. Project NIGHTGLOW is now working in the Australian Outback to launch a giant balloon so it floats around the world. NIGHTGLOW will be a package about the size of a minivan that will carry three telescopes and a few other experimental packages.

All of these packages (including the telescopes) will be attached to a metal frame that looks like a combination of spaceship and jungle gym! This frame and all the packages attached to it are what we call the "payload" or sometimes the "gondola". Gondola is a word used by ballooning people to describe anything that is carrying something underneath a balloon. It can be anything such as a frame or even a big basket to hold things. Sometimes people can ride in the gondola.

Our gondola, from now on we'll call it a payload, will not carry people but instead it will carry the telescopes. We will use these telescopes to look at the earth and the air above the Earth. We want to see how the Earth glows at night. That's right, the Earth can give off a faint glow much like glow-in-the-dark stickers do when you turn the lights off. Doing this can help us learn about things like cosmic rays that come zooming in from outer space and make little flashes in the sky (don't worry these cosmic rays can't hurt anybody because compared to us they are very, very small).

My job with the NIGHTGLOW project is as Lead Mechanical Engineer. An engineer is someone who uses math and science rules to design and build things, such as buildings, planes, computers, or spaceships. An engineer goes to college where he or she studies either engineering or science. The engineer's job is to applying the things learned to build things that work.

For the NIGHTGLOW project, the job of the mechanical engineer is to design the payload frame and make sure all the attached packages are put together correctly so things don't fall apart. The word "design" means to draw pictures of the payload, and all the parts that are in it, using computers. These pictures are used by other people to make the parts and see how everything goes together. During the design time the engineer makes calculations (using the same mathematics you are learning in class), so that things will fit together and not break when used.

The mechanical engineer gets to supervise the building of the payload and also helps put it together when getting ready for launch. Since I was involved from the beginning of the project, I was able to draw up the first designs of what NIGHTGLOW would look like. During the year and a half if took to design and build NIGHTGLOW, I was busy drawing the parts, talking to people about making the parts, supervising the assembly of the frame, and making sure the design passed the tests that other engineers have come up with to see if NIGHTGLOW would actually work once we were finished.

With that in mind, we are off to Australia to launch NIGHTGLOW for it's around-the-world flight looking for the Earth's glow at night. By now you have figured out that the name NIGHTGLOW says it all!

Questions from Trinity School

Olivia: What is a weather balloon?

A weather balloon is usually a smaller balloon that is sent up to check the wind and temperature of the air in the sky. We have balloons that are called "pi-bals" (for "pilot balloon") which are about 3 feet in diameter (diameter is how fat they are). When the weatherman lets it go, it floats up and the weatherman watches it. By measuring the angle the balloon flys up at, the weatherman can tell how fast the wind is going. The faster the wind, the more the balloon will go sideways. A thermometer attached to the balloon can tell the weatherman how cold it is up there.

Colin G.: What happens if the balloon goes too high?

Some balloons can pop or leak if they go too high. This balloon won't go too high as it is designed to only go to a certain height and then stop. We are expecting it to rise up to about 110,000 feet and stay there. If it goes lower we can drop some weight off the payload to make the payload lighter. This will cause the balloon to go up a little bit. This weight that we drop is called "ballast", and it is made of steel sand. It looks like powder but is very heavy. There are two boxes hanging from the payload that have about 1,700 pounds of ballast in them. We can send a signal to the payload and tell it to drop a few pounds when we want to. Dropping the steel doesn't hurt anybody because it is just powder.

Katie: Have you seen Steve and Terry (from the Crocodile Hunter series on TV)?

I've been looking and looking, but no, I haven't seen them here. I think they are working up in Queensland, which is in northeastern Australia. If you have a map you can see where Queensland is. There is a lot more rainforest and water up there. That is where a lot of the crocodiles are (Alice Springs doesn't have enough water for crocodiles). There are a lot of local Australians who act and talk like Steve. Crikey!

Ling: How long will the balloon be up?

Since we want it to go around the world, we hope it will stay up at least 2 weeks. If it goes around two times it will be about a month. This time is based on how fast the wind is at 100,000 feet up in the sky. There are high winds up there that go all the way around the Earth. We don't feel it because we are way down here on the ground. There are two things that happen up in the sky that we usually don't know about. One is that it is very windy up there and second, it is very cold. It is colder up there that anywhere down here on Earth - about 80 degrees below zero in some places up there!

Ryan: Is the food in Australia good?

Yes, the food is very good. Even out here in the middle of Australia we can get pretty good food (grubs not included). Since I've been here, I've eaten crocodile, camel, kangaroo, emu (large ostrich-like bird), and baramundi which is a fish. They have good fish and chips and cottage pie, too. The cottage pie comes in a bowl with beef stew, mashed potatoes on top with a sprinkling of mozzarella cheese. It is then baked for a few minutes and served hot. YUM!

Alex: Did you go surfing yet?

Not yet! I'm saving myself for Hawaii. I saw some surfers at a beach near Sydney. One thing to look out for when surfing in Australia is SHARKS! You have to know where the right places are to surf. Two years ago, a couple of the guys who are working with us went to Western Australia to bring back the payload after it had landed very near the beach. They decided to go wading in the ocean since it was so hot. After a few minutes they realized the water was filled with sharks. They got out of there in a hurry!

Catherine: Have you seen/ridden a camel?

Camel standing in the Outback There are lots of camels here in Alice Springs. I saw about 30 of them on the way in to the hangar. We might go for a ride one of these days. You can take a camel ride at sunset and have dinner in the desert if you like. Camels were first brought to the outback in the 1800's to carry people and things across the desert. They were originally brought in by Afghan traders, but they were eventually used by settlers who moved here from the other cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Be careful when you get close to a camel because sometimes they spit!

Kelly: What does the balloon look like?

Helium truck filling balloon in Antarctica A giant see-through pumpkin! We are going to fly with a new type of balloon that is supposed to last for up to 100 days - so far they've been able to keep one up for only 100 hours. Progress isn't always easy! This balloon is sometimes called the "pumpkin balloon" because it looks like a pumpkin when it's completely inflated. When we launch the balloon will look only partly filled. It will stand about 700 feet tall (much taller than the Washington Monument!). It will look skinny with a bulge at the top where most of the helium is (see picture on the right of a recent balloon launch from Antarctica). We use helium because it's lighter than air and will make the balloon float (just like your birthday party balloons). When the balloon goes way up in the sky it will fill out and become pumpkin shaped.

Kerry, Dominic, Colin C.: How heavy is the balloon?

Although people think of balloons as very light things it is surprising to find out that the balloon itself weighs over 5,000 pounds! This is as heavy as anyone's SUV. When the balloon is ready to launch, the whole thing, including the payload and parachute, will weigh about 12,000 pounds. This is as much as 170 second graders!

Emily: How fast do kangaroos grow, and how strong are they?

Kangaroo looking at you Kangaroos are usually ready to leave their mothers at about 1 year old. They live about 12 to 18 years in the wild (one 'roo lived 28 years in a zoo where he was fed well and had an easy life). There are several types of kangaroos. The largest are the red kangaroos. These guys can stand up to 6 feet tall (about as tall as your Mom or Dad!). Sometimes kangaroos have been known to get into fights. You don't want to fight a big boy kangaroo as they can, from a standing position, rock back and kick you with their big back legs. This will send you flying across the yard in a hurry!

Ling: Have you ever launched a rocket?

Yes, I've launched a lot of small rockets. Some were launched with Taylor and his friends. These rockets go about 500 to 1000 feet high. We also went to Florida to watch a much larger rocket, called a Delta 2, blast off with a space probe that went to Mars. Rockets are needed if you want to send something into space. Most things going into space, such as satellites, need to go about 175 miles or more high and go around the Earth really fast to stay up there. Go to the Mars Odyssey web site.

Connor: Have you seen a spikey anteater?

Maybe you mean the spiny anteater, or commonly known as the echidna? If so, the echidna is a mammal that lives in Australia. They are usually found in areas where there are more plants, but they sometimes can be found in the desert. They are interesting animals because, although they are mammals, they lay eggs instead of having babies!

There are plenty of termites out here. Termites are a favorite food for the echidna. The termites build tall mounds that are very hard like rock. The echidna has strong legs with claws that they can use to dig their way into the termite mound and eat the termites. Even though the fur has lots of spines and can hurt you, they make good pets as they have nice personalities.

Ryan: Can you bring a bag of grubs home for us to try?

It's good to see that you would be willing to eat witchetty grubs. You may feel different about it if you saw them up close. The problem is that there are rules against bringing this kind of thing into the United States. You see, every country has a place at the border where you first enter a country that makes sure that you don't bring in the wrong things. This place is called Customs, and it is located at the airport. They don't like people to bring in things like insects, plants or animals. Sometimes when an insect or plant is brought into a country it starts to grow wild in the nearby fields. These new insects or plants can hurt the insects and plants that are already there, so the best thing to do is keep the new ones out.

Mackenzie, Paige, Ian, Adrianna: What other kinds of animals have you seen?

Another group of animals that are here in Australia are insects and spiders! They have a spider here that is very poisonous. It's called the red backed spider since it has a red mark on its back. In fact one bite can kill a person! We have seen them, sometimes, in the boxes we use to carry things. Actually there a couple of strange beetles crawling on my computer screen right now! Shoo, go away! There, now they're gone. As this is the desert the animals and plants need to take advantage of the rain when it does come. So when it rains, lots of insects suddenly decide to show up a few days later. This of course adds to the fun when we are working in the field at night and there are swarms of bugs flying around us and on us.

Some of the birds here are interesting too. Today I saw a black wwan in the nearby pond. There was also a large black winged pelican in the same pond. A couple of ring necked parrots flew over my head yesterday.

There are wallabies that live here too. They are like small cuddly kangaroos and usually come out at night.

I'll try to get some pictures.

Colin G. and Adrianna: Why do you need to launch the balloon?

We are launching NIGHTGLOW to look at the Earth at night and see how much it glows. That's right, the Earth glows faintly at night. Sort of like a glow-in-the-dark sticker. NIGHTGLOW will provide a kind of picture of the Earth as it glows.

NIGHTGLOW hanging from crane Balloons such as this one are good ways to put experiments way up in the sky at the edge of space. There are many payloads where being at the edge of space is almost as good as being in space. The idea is to get above most of the air in the atmosphere. Another reason to use a balloon is that it costs a lot less than a satellite in space. NIGHTGLOW has telescopes that are built to look at the Earth's atmosphere, but it doesn't have the money to put them in space so a large high flying balloon is the way to go.

Rachel: Have you ever had to eat grubs?

No, unfortunately I haven't had any yet, but I think I'll pass on that one. They are usually only eaten as part of "Bush Tucker". when you are out in the outback. Bush Tucker is an Australia term for food from the wilderness. "Bush" means out in the wild, and not a plant that you or I would think of. If I do go out in the wild Outback, I'll be sure to bring pizza! ...and lots of water.

Jaclyn: Where in space is the balloon going to?

Actually the balloon doesn't quite go into outer space, but it does go to the edge of space. The balloon goes to about 22 miles high. This is about as high as you can go without a rocket. Even though the balloon is huge (as big as all the buildings at Trinity put together), it works like the balloons you have at your birthday parties. It needs air to float on. The NIGHTGLOW balloon will float to about 22 miles (3 times higher than an airplane). There is very little air up there, just enough for the balloon to float!

Brooke: What is Australia like?

View of Sydney from Scott's hotel room

Australia is a country about the size of the United States. It has just over 19 million people in it. The United States has about 15 times more people. Most Australians live near the ocean in cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra (the capital of Australia), Adelaide, and, in the west, Perth. You can look for these on the map or globe. The weather is usually good. Not much snow in winter. The center of Australia is mostly desert. It's called the Outback. We are in a place called Alice Springs and it is in the center of Australia, in the Outback. The Outback is very hot in the summer (remember Australian summer is America's winter). Today the temperature is over 100 degrees fahrenheit! HOT!

View of Alice Springs

The people in Australia are friendly and speak English the way you and I do, except they have different accents and say things like "G'day" for hello and "bloke" for man or guy. They call their friends "mates", and the women and girls are called "sheilas". The Australians love sports especially swimming, Australian football, and Cricket. Australian football is like Rugby except they get more teeth knocked out! OUCH! Cricket is like a combination of croquet and baseball. You have to see it to believe it.

After America, I think Australia is my favorite country.

Breanna: Do you use Apple computers for checking the weather?

Sort of. We have 7 or 8 computers here and 2 of them are Apples. The others are PCs like the ones at Trinity. When we are ready to launch we will use the computers to check the weather and see if it's going to be rainy or windy. The one we are most interested in is the wind; it's the hardest to understand. We have more Apple computers back in the lab in Maryland.

Nick: What happens if the balloon pops while it's in space?

Actually the balloon we use is so big that it won't pop with a bang but it could leak with a hiss. If this happens we will send a signal to the payload and tell it to drop off the bottom of the balloon and float down to the earth with a giant parachute. Hopefully it will land in a field somewhere and not on someone's house! It could come down into the ocean and sink to the bottom of the sea! Let's hope THAT doesn't happen!

Taylor: Did you find any cactus?

Spinifex plant

The desert here in Alice Springs is not like the desert in Tucson, Arizona. In Tucson there are a lot of large cacti known as Saguaro (pronounced sa-war-o) cactus. These are the tall ones with arms pointed up in the air. In the Outback there are no cactus like this but there are plants called Spinifex, which has lots of really sharp needles about as long as your fingers. They are about the size of a basketball, and if you drive over them all your tires will pop!

Wichitty bush

There are bushes, such as the Witchitty bush, that have small green leaves and are about as tall as you are. These plants have roots that are home to large, squiggly grubs about the size of your teacher's thumb! These Wichitty grubs are eaten by people who are camping out in the Outback when there is no food around. YUCK!

Erin, Patrick and Tyler: Have you seen any kangaroos yet?

Kangaroos under a bush

Yes! We saw a couple of kangaroos yesterday. They were laying in the shade under a bush. Most kangaroos live away from the town (too noisy for them), so we usually don't see them until we drive into the countryside. Kangaroos are mammals like dogs and cats and people. They are also different, as they are marsupials (say mar-soop-ial). This means they have a pouch attached to their chest where they keep their baby! Sometimes I see a mother kangaroo and suddenly a baby 'roo jumps out of her pouch and hops around. Baby kangaroos are called joeys (just like baby dogs are called puppies).

Kangaroos eat plants and can stand on their back legs while eating leaves from a tall bush. They also have a big tail to help them balance themselves.

Carly: Can you send us a picture of space from the balloon?

There are a couple of video cameras on the payload. These are there to look at the balloon as it rises up through the air. This is to make sure that if the balloon breaks we can see what happened. These cameras are operated by the people who are in charge of the balloon. They are not the same people who are working on NIGHTGLOW. I will ask them about getting some pictures but I'm not sure they will let us have them. We will see.

This file was last modified February 12, 2003