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NASA HOPES FILM CAPTURED AURORAS

NASA is hoping it pulled off a unique double-whammy in space, but won't know if it succeeded until mid-March.

For four days in early February, during the close approach to Jupiter by the Ulysses spacecraft, the probe was used to measure the gigantic planet's magnetic fluctuations. Simultaneously, the Hubble space telescope in earth orbit tried to photograph auroras in the atmosphere and analyze their chemistry with spectrographs.Auroras are glowing areas of energized gas, and several planets are known to have them. Utahns were treated to a wonderful display of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, on the night of Nov. 8, 1991.

Those who witnessed it say they looked like huge blood-red drapery and clouds that hung above Salt Lake City to the northwest. Actually, they weren't hanging over Utah. That night, the auroras were visible throughout much of the northern hemisphere, including Scandinavia.

Ulysses is designed to study the sun's poles - regions we can't see from Earth.

On its way to an orbit that will make it the first spacecraft to loop above and below the sun, Ulysses needed to slingshot past Jupiter, so it could change direction. When it was close enough, it was ordered to measure the "electrical fireworks," as NASA termed the flow of subatomic particles that follow Jupiter's magnetic fields, as well as the fluctuations in the lines of force.

Meanwhile, Hubble was busy snapping views of the planet in the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. Ultraviolet should be best to show the auroras.

The flawed Hubble telescope creates badly blurred images, so a computer cleanup program must be used to restore some of the visual information. When that project is finished, information from Ulysses can be correlated with the aurora photos (assuming any succeeded), to discover how the subatomic and magnetic fluctuations changed as the spacecraft neared particular auroras.

One drawback is that astronomers aren't sure the auroras were bright enough to be picked up by Hubble. But if they were, Hubble and Ulysses may have pioneered a new method of space exploration.