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NASA’s Antarctic Airships: Scientific Voyages Above the Ice

NASA’s annual Antarctic Long Duration Balloon Campaign, beginning around December 1, will launch three scientific balloons from McMurdo Station, Antarctica. These balloons will support five missions, including the GUSTO mission to map parts of the Milky Way.

NASAEstablished in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Its vision is "To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity." Its core values are "safety, integrity, teamwork, excellence, and inclusion." NASA conducts research, develops technology and launches missions to explore and study Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. It also works to advance the state of knowledge in a wide range of scientific fields, including Earth and space science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics, and it collaborates with private companies and international partners to achieve its goals.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>NASA’s Antarctic Long Duration Balloon Campaign includes the GUSTO mission to map the Milky WayThe Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System and is part of the Local Group of galaxies. It is a barred spiral galaxy that contains an estimated 100-400 billion stars and has a diameter between 150,000 and 200,000 light-years. The name "Milky Way" comes from the appearance of the galaxy from Earth as a faint band of light that stretches across the night sky, resembling spilled milk.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>Milky Way and other missions for cosmic ray measurement and technology testing. The campaign takes advantage of Antarctica’s summer conditions for extended near-space flights.

NASA kicks off its annual Antarctic Long Duration Balloon Campaign around Dec. 1, which includes three scientific balloon flights planned for launch from the long-duration balloon (LDB) Camp near McMurdo Station, Antarctica. NASA’s stadium-sized, zero-pressure balloons will support a total of five missions on the long-duration flights with one mission vying to break NASA’s heavy-lift, long-duration balloon flight record, which stands at 55 days, 1 hour, and 34 minutes.

“The annual Antarctic long-duration balloon campaign is the program’s flagship event for long-duration missions,” said Andrew Hamilton, acting chief of NASA’s Balloon Program Office (BPO). “The environment and stratospheric wind conditions provide a unique and valuable opportunity to fly missions in a near-space environment for days or weeks at a time. The BPO team is excited to provide support to all our missions this year.”

Scientific Balloon Payload Prepared for Launch in McMurdo Station, Antarctica

A scientific balloon payload is being prepared for launch in McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Credit: NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility

GUSTO: The Campaign’s Highlight

Headlining this year’s campaign is the Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) mission. This Astrophysics mission is managed by NASA’s Explorers Program Office at Goddard Space Flight Center. The mission is led by principal investigator Christopher Walker from the University of Arizona with support from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

GUSTO will aim for 55-plus days in flight above the southernmost hemisphere’s skies to map a large part of the Milky Way galaxy, including the galactic center, and the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud. The GUSTO telescope is equipped with very sensitive detectors for carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen emission lines. Measuring these emission lines will give the GUSTO team deep insight into the full lifecycle of the interstellar medium, the cosmic material found between stars.

GUSTO’s science observations will be performed from Antarctica to allow for enough observation time aloft, access to astronomical objects, and solar power provided by the austral summer in the polar region.

NASA Scientific Balloon in Antarctica

A NASA scientific balloon awaits launch in McMurdo, Antarctica. Credit: NASA

Additional missions set to fly during the Antarctic LDB campaign include:

  • Anti-Electron Sub-Orbital Payload (AESOP-Lite): The mission, led by a team from the University of Delaware and University of California Santa Cruz, will measure cosmic-ray electrons and positrons. These electron measurements will be compared to Voyager I and II, which reached interstellar space and have been measuring cosmic ray electrons since 2012 and 2018, respectively. AESOP-Lite will fly on a 60 million cubic feet balloon, a test flight set to qualify the balloon for reaching altitudes greater than 150,000 feet, which is higher than NASA’s current stratospheric inventory.
  • Long durAtion evalUation solaR hand LAunch (LAURA): This engineering test flight, led by NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, will utilize solar panels to extend the science capability of the hand launch platform from a few days in flight to long-duration flights. Hand-launched balloons are about 40 times smaller in volume than the heavy-lift balloons and have limited time aloft due to the amount and weight of batteries used for powering the science and balloon instruments.
  • Anihala (Antarctic Infrasound Hand Launch): This piggyback payload on the AESOP-Lite launch, a cooperative mission between the Swedish Institute of Space Physics and Sandia National Lab, aims to measure natural background sound in the stratosphere over a continent where human-generated sound is largely absent.

Zero-pressure balloons feature open ducts that allow gas to escape and prevent an increase in pressure from inside the balloon. Gas expansion occurs as it heats during the balloon’s rise above the Earth’s surface or by temperature increases from a rising Sun. These balloons, which typically have a shorter flight duration due to the loss of gas from the cycle of day to night, can only fly long-duration missions during the constant daylight of summer in polar regions, where the balloon stays in constant sunlight.

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. Peraton, which operates NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) in Texas, 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 over some 40 years of operations. NASA’s balloons are fabricated by Aerostar. The NASA Scientific Balloon Program is funded by the NASA Headquarters Science Mission Directorate Astrophysics Division.

Source: SciTechDaily