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NASA's Super-Tiger balloon launched from McMurdo Station in Antarctica on Dec. 8 and remained in flight for a record 55 days. The balloon collected data on rare, heavy subatomic particles that can reveal the origins of such particles in the universe. 

NASA’s Super-TIGER balloon completes record-setting mission

by Fouad Egbaria
Feb 07, 2013

NASA’s Super-TIGER high-altitude balloon finally came back to earth after a record-setting 55-day mission to explore cosmic rays as fingerprints of forces in the galaxy.

“For us, it’s more about the data,” said physicist Bob Binns, the flight’s principal investigator and a research professor at Washington University in Saint Louis. “But the fact that we were up for so long meant that we collected a lot of data. That will enable us to make better measurements than we thought we might be able to do. It’s a big deal to us that we had the long duration flight.”

The unmanned balloon was released from the Long Duration Balloon site near the McMurdo Station in Antarctica on Dec. 8 and came down Feb. 1.

According to NASA, the balloon broke “two flight duration records while flying over Antarctica carrying an instrument that detected 50 million cosmic rays.” The Super-TIGER stayed in the air for 55 days, 1 hour and 34 minutes. It flew at an altitude of about 127,000 feet, some three to four times the altitude you reach in a commercial airplane.

Binns said that the credit for the execution of the flight itself goes to the Columbia Scientific Ballooning Facility, in Palestine, Texas, which flies all the “big balloons with science payloads” in the United States.

The previous record was set in 2009 by NASA's Super Pressure Balloon, which flew for 54 days, 1 hour and 29 minutes.

The particles detected by the instrumentation on the Super-TIGER are the nuclei of atoms, known as cosmic rays. Approximately 50 million particles went through the Super-TIGER’s instrument, according to Binns.

Measurements of these particles allow scientists to determine what elements they came from. Binns said they are rare particles, the ones that are heavier than zinc on the periodic table. Zinc has an atomic weight of 65, with 30 protons and 35 neutrons. 

“The pattern in the abundances [of the particles] are kind of like a fingerprint,” he said. “They can tell us where the particles came from.” In addition to ascertaining from where these particles came from in the universe, the data will help scientists determine how these particles are accelerated to their “very high velocities.”

“In this case, the Super-TIGER experiment, they’re looking at cosmic rays,” said Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium. “These are very energetic particles of matter that are accelerated by supernova remnants, the remnants of exploded stars. These energetic particles blast out in all directions,” Hammergren said. 

He noted that cosmic rays are generally filtered and splintered into secondary particles by the earth’s protective atmosphere. The only way to study them is with spacecrafts such as satellites sending balloons or spacecrafts to space or using high-altitude balloons.

He also explained the logic behind scientific balloon launches themselves. “The answer is pretty simple. Getting something on a high-altitude balloon is the next best thing to getting it into space.”

With the sizable expense involved in building and sending satellites into orbit, balloons are a cost-effective way to get very near outer space.

“Balloons are much, much cheaper than satellites,” Hammergren said. “The cheapest satellite you could put up that would carry something like the Super-TIGER experiment would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, a professor at DePaul University, also does work with scientific education with high-altitude balloons.

“You have a balloon in a very harsh environment, so having it stay up there for a long time is not trivial,” Beck-Winchatz said.

The balloon took advantage of the stratospheric, anticyclonic wind patterns near the South Pole in order to stay in the air at altitudes of more than three of four times higher than the average commercial airliner.

“You don’t have to worry about your payload going out over the Pacific Ocean or going out over international boundaries if you launched it at a higher altitude. The conditions are much better for that down in Antarctica,” Hammergren said.

Not every balloon flight lasts as long as this one, but the rationale behind balloon flight remains consistent.

The balloons NASA average about two weeks of flight time, he said. “It gives you a chance to build something, and then collect some data with it and revise it, rebuild it, then launch it again. You can’t do that with a satellite,” Beck-Winchatz said.

Balloon flights from Antarctica always launch in either December or January, the middle of Antarctic summer. The next Antarctic balloon flight will take place in December of this year, Binns said.