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Friday, January 04, 2008

Scientific Balloons Achieve Antarctic Flight Record

NASA and the National Science Foundation say they have achieved a new milestone in conducting scientific observations from balloons, by launching and operating three
long-duration flights within a single Antarctic summer.

"Having three long-duration balloon science missions flying simultaneously is a record-setting event. But of greater significance is the increase in science that can be accomplished with only a modest increase in cost to the program," says David Gregory, assistant chief of NASA's Balloon Program at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Unique atmospheric circulation over Antarctica during its summer months allows scientists to launch balloons from a site near McMurdo Station, NSF's logistics hub in Antarctica, and recover them from nearly the same spot weeks later. During that time, each balloon circles the continent one to three times. Scientists from the United States, Japan, South Korea, France and other countries are using the balloons to investigate the nature of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays and to search for antimatter.

The three payloads will ride the stratospheric winds in the polar vortex, a persistent low-pressure system above the Antarctic continent that will help keep balloons aloft for up to six weeks. This orbital pattern allows for long and continuous observations of a variety of phenomena from a single instrument at a fraction of the cost of launching a satellite into space.

The payloads launched Dec. 19 - 26 from McMurdo are the University of Maryland's Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass (CREAM) experiment, the Balloon borne Experiment with a Superconducting Spectrometer (BESS) developed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. and Japan's High Energy Accelerator Center, Tsukuba, Japan, and Louisiana State University's Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC).

The CREAM investigation will search for characteristic changes in elemental composition and energy spectra of very high-energy cosmic rays that might be associated with a particle acceleration limit in supernovae. ATIC is focusing on cosmic rays electrons, which are of particular interest because they are subject to synchrotron energy loses, so structure in their spectrum may be linked to individual, nearby sources. BESS will provide definitive measurements of low-energy antiprotons in solar minimum conditions, with precise data that will constrain models for dark matter, in addition to placing limits on decay of primordial black holes and cosmological antimatter.

Once the balloon flights are completed, the payloads will be retrieved, brought back to McMurdo, and then returned to the U.S., where they can be refurbished and launched again.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA conduct an annual scientific-balloon campaign during the Antarctic summer.

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