Many are looking forward to a little downtime over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. But for some teams of scientists and engineers, the holiday season will be up time — time to send research balloons up to altitudes of 25 miles over Antarctica. Among other things, those balloons will study cosmic rays and the early history of the universe.
Balloons allow astronomers to loft their instruments above most of Earth’s obscuring atmosphere, at a fraction of the cost of a space mission. The instruments can also be recovered for use on later flights.
NASA launches several balloons each year from New Mexico and Texas. But most of those flights last no more than a day or two, because the payloads have to be brought down before winds push them away from the U.S. In Antarctica, on the other hand, winds push the balloons in a big circle around the continent’s perimeter. That means the flights can last for days or weeks. Last year, in fact, a balloon stayed aloft for a record 55 days.
This year the agency will launch three balloons, beginning in December, when there’s round-the-clock daylight. One will probe the early universe to learn more about cosmic inflation — a brief instant in which the newborn universe expanded at a phenomenal rate. Another will study cosmic rays — energetic particles from far outside our own solar system — from high above the frozen Antarctic.
And we’ll have more about Antarctic astronomy tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013
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