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Aeronautics and Space Report Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution contributed to the national space program through the research of staff scientists at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at the Center for Planetary Studies based at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Based on observations of x-ray binary stars made with the Japanese-NASA Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics, SAO scientists and their colleagues were able to confirm the existence of a previously theoretical phenomenon known as an "event horizon," the one-way membrane surrounding a black hole, and the place at which all forms of matter and energy, including light, begin to fall into this gravitational trap, never to escape. Two SAO scientists used HST's Fine Object Camera to obtain ultraviolet and optical images of the giant star Mira A and its hot companion, representing both the first ultraviolet images of the two objects, as well as the first separate spectra of the two stars ever obtained. The unique images suggest that material from Mira's extended atmosphere is being drawn onto the smaller companion.

A balloon-borne Far Infrared Spectrometer 2 (FIRS-2), designed and built at SAO, made its 10th successful probe of Earth's stratosphere on April 30, 1997, during a 5-hour flight over Alaska. The FIRS-2 instrument measured high-altitude gases vital to understanding atmospheric photochemistry, especially ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect. This flight was a part of the international validation campaign for the Advanced Earth Observing Satellite, launched by the National Space Development Agency of Japan.

Infrared Spectrometer Ballone

On April 30, 1997, the SAO's Far Infrared Spectrometer 2 (FIRS-2) balloon-borne measurement system was flown successfully into Earth's stratosphere above the Arctic. FIRS-2 was launched from Ft. Wainright, Alaska (near Fairbanks), at 7:15 a.m., on a gondola supplied by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The SAO-designed Ultraviolet Coronagraph Spectrometer on board the ESA-NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory measured particle velocity distributions in the inner solar corona. Scientists were surprised at how different these distributions were from their expectations and plan to use these data to help unravel the complicated processes that determine the acceleration of the solar wind.

Using a new quick and efficient method, SAO scientists demonstrated how finding elusive brown dwarf stars could become easier. The astronomers took pictures of Gliese 229, a reported brown dwarf system, with an infrared camera at NASA's Near Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. They first observed the system through a filter that favored methane absorption and then through another filter that excluded it. Comparing the various filtered images helped subtract out objects that are not truly brown dwarfs. This method, in addition to requiring very little telescope time, may reduce the number of false alarms in searches for brown dwarfs.

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