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NASA balloon mission launches with goal of breaking flight record

26 April 2017

The football-stadium-sized, super-pressure balloon aims to set a record for flight duration while carrying a telescope that will study cosmic rays.

NASA’s super-pressure balloon took flight at 10:50 a.m. local time April 25 (5:50 p.m. CST April 24) from Wanaka Airport in New Zealand (Credit: NASA/Bill Rodman)

Researchers from 16 nations hope the balloon, which lifted off from an airfield in Wanaka, New Zealand, will stay afloat for up to 100 days as it travels at 110,000ft around the Southern Hemisphere. From its vantage point in near-space, the telescope is designed to detect ultra-high energy cosmic rays as they penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere. An ultraviolet camera on the telescope will take 400,000 images a second as it looks back toward Earth to try and capture some of the particles.

“The mission is searching for the most energetic cosmic particles ever observed,” said Angela V. Olinto, the Homer J. Livingston Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and principal investigator of the project, known as the Extreme Universe Space Observatory on a Super Pressure Balloon (EUSO-SPB). “The origin of these particles is a great mystery that we’d like to solve. Do they come from massive black holes at the centre of galaxies? Tiny, fast-spinning stars? Or somewhere else?”

The next step for Olinto and her fellow scientists is a space mission, now being designed by NASA centres under her leadership, to observe a greater atmospheric area for detecting high-energy cosmic rays and neutrinos. These extremely rare particles hit the atmosphere at a rate of only one per square kilometre per century.

As the NASA balloon travels around the Earth in the coming months, it may be visible from the ground, particularly at sunrise and sunset, to those who live in the mid-latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere such as Australia, Argentina and South Africa. You can track the flight on a map in real-time here.

The complex balloon launch depended on the right weather conditions on the surface of the Earth all the way up to 110,000ft, where the balloon travels. The launch window for lift-off opened March 25, and it took a full month until the 18.8-million-cubic-foot balloon could take flight. Scientists now hope the balloon, made of a polyethylene film stronger and more durable than the type used in sandwich bags, can break the previous flight record of 46 days, set in 2016.

At a relatively low cost, NASA’s heavy-lift balloons have become critical launch vehicles for testing new technologies and science instruments to assure success for costlier, higher-risk spaceflight missions, said Debbie Fairbrother, chief of NASA’s Balloon Programme Office.

“For decades, balloons have provided access to the near-space environment to support scientific investigations, technology testing, education and workforce development,” Fairbrother said. “We’re thrilled to provide this high-altitude flight opportunity for EUSO-SPB as they work to validate their technologies while conducting some really mind-blowing science.”

Materials provided by University of Chicago

Video courtesy of NASAWallops

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