NASA Launches Giant Scientific Balloons in Antarctica

The Boron And Carbon Cosmic rays in the Upper Stratosphere (BACCUS) payload takes flight Nov. 28. Credit: NASA
The Boron And Carbon Cosmic rays in the Upper Stratosphere (BACCUS) payload takes flight Nov. 28.
Credit: NASA

NASA launched its large zero-pressure balloon on November 28 with instruments and payload that will observe cosmic rays and chemicals and atoms that make up the interstellar space between stars. The balloon—as large as a football stadium and 40 million cubic feet in volume when fully inflated—carries the Boron And Carbon Cosmic rays in the Upper Stratosphere (BACCUS) payload. This study is by the University of Maryland’s BACCUS mission.

Three such unmanned balloon flights make up Antarctica’s Scientific Balloon Campaign this year.

Another zero-pressure balloon launched on December 2 will help scientists study the reactions in the core of stars and as they explode via the release of neutrinos that travel to Earth and interact with the Antarctica ice. This study by the University of Hawaii at Manoa uses instruments from the Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) payload.

(ANITA) payload Credit: NASA
(ANITA) payload; Credit: NASA

The third flight, scheduled for mid-December will enable scientists to better understand the life cycle of the interstellar medium, which is the matter that fills the space between stars in the galaxy. It uses the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory (STO-II) from the University of Arizona.

The balloons are being launched from Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf near McMurdo Station. Once airborne, each mission will float at a near constant altitude about 24 miles (39 kilometers, 128,000 feet) up in the atmosphere on a westward trajectory around the continent. Each circumnavigation around the South Pole takes approximately two weeks but may vary depending on time of the year and altitude. On average, a NASA Antarctic mission can achieve around 20 days of balloon flight.

NASA Associate Administrator Dava Newman (center) meets with ANITA payload team on Nov. 29 at the NASA scientific balloon facilities in Antarctica. Credit: NASA
NASA Associate Administrator Dava Newman (center) meets with ANITA payload team on Nov. 29 at the NASA scientific balloon facilities in Antarctica.
Credit: NASA

The payloads and instruments are solar-powered, making this time of year an ideal time for balloon flights since the region experiences sunlight 24-hours a day during the Antarctic summer. In addition, a weather phenomenon during the Antarctic summer known as an anticyclone takes the balloon on a circular flight trajectory, keeping the balloon over the Antarctic land mass over extended periods of time. Keeping the balloon over land helps enable recovery of the payload after the mission.

“Weather conditions and the readiness of our science teams all aligned to allow us to kick-off our Antarctica campaign earlier than in previous years,” said Gabe Garde, NASA mission manager. “We had a smooth operation today with BACCUS, thanks in large part to the support from our friends in the National Science Foundation’s United States Antarctic Program.”

The University of Maryland’s BACCUS mission complements another investigation by the university known as the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass experiment, which has flown previously on NASA balloons and is slated to launch to the International Space Station.

NASA’s scientific balloons offer low-cost, near-space access for suspended loads weighing up to 8,000 pounds to conduct technology demonstration tests as well as scientific investigations in fields such as astrophysics, heliophysics, and atmospheric research. Depending on the goals and objectives of a specific mission, balloon flight durations can run hours to multiple days or weeks for longer-term exposures and data collection.

NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia manages the agency’s scientific balloon flight program with 10 to 15 flights each year from launch sites worldwide. Orbital ATK, which operates NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF), provides mission planning, engineering services and field operations for NASA’s scientific balloon program. The CSBF team has launched more than 1,700 scientific balloons in 35 years of operation.

Anyone may track the progress of NASA’s Antarctica scientific balloon flights via online tools that provide altitude and speed as well as a map showing the balloon’s real-time location, at: https://www.csbf.nasa.gov/antarctica/ice.htm.

Adapted in part by Sitara Maruf
Source: NASA

 

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