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Antarctic record for scientific balloons

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January 6, 2008

The Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass (CREAM) payload is launched near NSF's McMurdo Station,...

The Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass (CREAM) payload is launched near NSF's McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Photo: NASA

January 7, 2007 A record three long-duration, sub-orbital flights were launched and operated in Antarctica during this current Southern-Hemisphere summer, marking a new milestone for the almost 20-years of scientific ballooning in the region. The achievement was the result of a partnership between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with NSF providing infrastructure and logistics and NASA providing the satellite communications link.

The flights launched between 19-26 December from three separate scientific organizations. The University of Maryland launched a Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) payload; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Japan's High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK) launched the Balloon-borne Experiment with a Superconducting Spectrometer (BESS-Polar) payload; and Louisiana State University launch an Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC) payload. NSF facilitated all three launches near McMurdo Station, its Antarctic logistics hub, and will recover the payloads after the flights.

These balloon flights carry the balloons and their instruments at the edge of space and are used to investigate the nature of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays and search for anti-matter, as air currents that circle Antarctica. Unique atmospheric circulation over Antarctica during the austral summer allows scientists to launch balloons from a site near McMurdo Station and recover them from very nearly the same spot weeks later. Antarctic flights are of a long duration because of the polar vortex, a persistent, large, low-pressure system, and because there is very little atmospheric or temperature change. Constant daylight in Antarctica means no day-to-night temperature fluctuations on the balloon, which helps the balloon stay at a nearly constant altitude for a longer time. These three payloads will ride the stratospheric winds in the polar vortex above the Antarctic continent for up to six weeks. Once the balloon flights are completed, the payloads will be retrieved, brought back to McMurdo, and then shipped back to the United States, where they are refurbished and then launched again.

Since the beginning of the collaboration between NSF and NASA in 1989, one to two flights per year have been achieved. The milestone of three flights this summer is particularly significant, as it occurs during the height of the International Polar Year (IPY), a coordinated scientific campaign that is engaging scientists from more than 60 nations. "With the launch of the CREAM, BESS, and ATIC missions, NASA and NSF have realized a goal we have worked toward for several years in order to accomplish more science" said David Gregory, assistant chief of NASA's Balloon Program at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. "Having three long-duration balloon science missions flying simultaneously is a record-setting event that we in the Balloon Program and the Office of Polar Programs are very excited about. But of greater significance is that more science can be accomplished with a modest increase in cost to the program."

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