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NMSU helps NASA?s Scientific Balloon Program achieve rare feat

For the first time in the 27-year launch history in Fort Sumner, N.M., New Mexico State University?s Physical Science Laboratory?s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility team launched three balloon experiments on three consecutive days for NASA?s Scientific Balloon Program. The launches took flight Sept. 24-26.


A research balloon prepares to launch.
In late September, history was made as New Mexico State University?s Physical Science Laboratory?s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility team launched three balloon experiments on three consecutive days for NASA in Fort Sumner, N.M. (NMSU photo)

The team from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility traveled to Fort Sumner and started conducting launches in mid-August, and one launch per week is typical at that site. Fort Sumner is desired this time of year because of the change in seasons. During the late summer and early fall period, winds change directions.

?During the transitioning, the winds get very light and that?s when our scientists want to fly because they go up and get very light winds and can stay in range of our telemetry system for 24 hours or so,? said Danny Ball, site manager for the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility.

The launch crew experienced a period of poor weather conditions in September, and multiple balloons were prepared and waiting to be launched if or when the conditions cleared.

According to Ball, the scientists who want to launch during the transitional season period only have a window of 10 to 14 days. He applauded his staff for their hard work to launch the missions in the very limited time frame.

?The fact that we had back-to-back-to-back launches on three consecutive days just cleared our house,? Ball said. ?It just doesn?t happen that you get three days in a row unless you take the bull by the horns and launch these things in conditions that you might otherwise not.?

The Sept. 24 launch was the X-CALIBUR mission from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. The mission was conducted to flight-test a pointing system and hard X-ray polarimeter for a future long-duration balloon flight. The mission, which lasted seven hours and 40 minutes at 126,000 feet, was a success as the detector functioned properly and the group earned valuable experience with the operating pointing system.

The Sept. 25 launch was Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory?s Balloon Observation Platform for Planetary Science (BOPPS). The flight reached an altitude of 128,000 feet and lasted 18 hours and 53 minutes. The mission was to measure the amounts and ratios of water to carbon dioxide in comets and asteroids. The successful mission achieved planned daylight and nighttime observations, while it also examined additional targets.

The Sept. 26 launch was the Gamma-Ray Polarimeter Experiment (GRAPE) from the University of New Hampshire. The 18-hour and 51-minute mission, which reached heights of 130,000 feet, studied the nature of gamma-ray bursts, some of the most energetic events in the universe. The mission allowed the team two hours of observation of their prime objective, the Crab Nebula, and more than 16 hours of additional float time.