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September 10, 2001


DALLAS (SMU) -- Two researchers from Southern Methodist University’s School of Engineering are helping NASA build an instrument that will gather more detailed information about the greenhouse effect in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Electrical engineering professors Zeynep Celik-Butler and Donald Butler will receive $421,000 over the next two years to participate in a NASA project called Far-Infrared Spectroscopy of the Troposphere (FIRST).

FIRST is a new sensor designed to measure critical but previously unobserved components of the Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth’s climate is maintained by a balance between incoming solar radiation (light) at visible wavelengths and the radiation (light) emitted back to space by the Earth at invisible infrared wavelengths. Current NASA sensors observe the infrared radiation from the planet, but only to a wavelength of about 15 micrometers. A micrometer is one-millionth of a meter.

The goal of the FIRST project is to develop the technologies that will allow direct measurements of the infrared radiation leaving the Earth and its atmosphere at wavelengths longer than 15 micrometers out to as far as 100 micrometers. The portion of the infrared spectrum between 15 and 100 micrometers, which scientists refer to as the "far-infrared," has rarely been observed directly from space or from instruments on the ground or in aircraft. However, more than one half of the energy emitted by the Earth and the atmosphere occurs at these long wavelengths. Much of the radiation emitted by the atmosphere in the far-infrared is from water vapor.

"Direct observations of the far-infrared will enable scientists to better understand how the Earth’s climate responds to factors such as the buildup of greenhouse gases," said Marty Mlynczak, a NASA scientist who is coordinating the FIRST project.

The Butlers, who are experts in making miniature electronic devices for a variety of purposes, will develop tiny infrared detectors that will be part of the FIRST spectrometer. Researchers from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., as well as researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory and a private company called G&A Software, also will contribute to development of the spectrometer and its associated software.

Mlynczak said FIRST will be able to measure far-infrared radiation without having to cool the infrared detectors to near absolute zero as in previous far-infrared instruments. This will significantly reduce the weight, power and volume required for space instruments and will also increase the lifetime of the experiment once in orbit.

The Butlers expect to complete their portion of the work in two years. The completed spectrometer could fly in space three to five years after that.

Donald Butler said the technology developed for FIRST also could be used to learn more about the atmosphere on other planets.

This is the second atmospheric detector project the Butlers have worked on for NASA. In 1999, they received a grant to work on an earlier detector that NASA was developing. The Butlers delivered their work for that project in November 2000, and the system, known as the Cloud and Earth Radiant Energy System, is currently being tested.