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Nobel Prize-winning research has roots in scientific ballooning

When the Nobel Prize in Physics was announced in Stockholm, Sweden, last month, there was celebration in Palestine, Texas, home of the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility.

A scientific balloon carrying the BOOMERanG cosmic microwave background experiment is about to launch from Antarctica, with Mt. Erebus in the background, in this 2002 photo. The Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, operated for NASA by New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory, launches high-altitude balloons from sites all over the world. (Photo courtesy of the BOOMERanG Team)

That's because the scientific balloon program, operated for NASA by New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory, helped blaze the trail to what was described as one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century.

John Mather, a senior astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and George Smoot, a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, will share the $1.4 million Nobel Prize for discovering the nature of "blackbody radiation" and affirming the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.

Mather and Smoot were the chief architects of NASA's COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite, launched in 1989, which provided precise measurements of the microwave radiation coming from all directions of the universe. But much of the research leading to the development and success of COBE was done aboard high-altitude scientific balloons launched by the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF).

"A lot of the early work in cosmology, particularly in microwave background radiation, was done on balloons here," said Danny Ball, CSBF site manager. "Many of the detectors on COBE were tested first on our balloon flights, and probably about half of the people on the COBE science team are current or former balloon scientists. George Smoot was a long-time user of balloons, from the 70s through the early 90s."

Because Earth's atmosphere absorbs the cosmic microwave radiation, measuring the radiation requires putting instruments in space. Balloons offer scientists the advantage of carrying instruments to altitudes of about 30 miles - above 99.5 percent of the Earth's atmosphere - at a fraction of the cost of launching a satellite into orbit, Ball said.

That's the chief reason Smoot and other cosmologists have been avid balloon scientists.

"Ballooning is viewed as a best-value proposition by many scientists," said Stephen Hottman, associate dean for research and development and deputy director of the Physical Science Laboratory. "A balloon can place an experiment in essentially a space environment in a relatively short time after the inception of an experiment and at a low platform cost."

Ball said a typical satellite mission can cost about $100 million, compared with $1 million or less for a balloon flight.

"Also, when satellites are developed, instruments and detectors must be specified years in advance," he said. "It typically takes 10 years to produce a satellite, but even the most complex balloon experiments can be developed in a third of that time. So in some cases, balloon experiments fly more sophisticated detectors than are possible on satellite missions simply because the technology is newer."

The discoveries that brought the Nobel Prize to Smoot and Mather, however, required measurements over a long period of time, and that's where satellites have the advantage.

The fundamental finding of the COBE project "was that the cosmic microwave background was lumpy, that there were differences in density," Ball said. "This showed that the early universe was not homogeneous. If it had been there would have been no differences in gravitational pull and the universe would have remained like a big jar of mayonnaise forever. Instead, these lumps led to the formation of stars and galaxies."

The COBE discovery "turned cosmology into a precision science," said Per Carlson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics.

"It is one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century," Carlson said. "I would call it the greatest. It increases our knowledge of our place in the universe."

Mather and Smoot's Nobel Prize "is quiet testimony to the value of balloons as a springboard to great science and sometimes the vehicle for great science in itself," Ball said.

Since the COBE results were announced, other balloon experiments launched by CSBF have confirmed and refined the COBE results, he said. An experiment known as BOOMERanG, launched from Antarctica, provided the most detailed measurements yet of the cosmic microwave background radiation. It was listed by NASA as one of the top 10 space science discoveries of the past five years.

"NMSU is proud to support the work of these scientists," Hottman said.