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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Record-breaking flight shows scientific ballooning far from old-fashioned

A scientific balloon mission that set a record for flight duration last week demonstrated the advantages of balloon technology for near-space research -- and commercial applications as well, said Stephen Hottman, who oversees the ballooning program at New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory.


near the edge of space, the pilotless, helium-filled balloon launched from Antarctica carried a payload of scientific instruments aloft for almost 32 days, far longer than the previous record of 26 days set last year.

It also was the first balloon ever to circumnavigate the South Pole twice, said Danny Ball, site manager of the National Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas.

The Physical Science Laboratory operates the balloon program for NASA, launching 20 to 25 flights a year from sites around the world. Palestine, Texas, and Fort Sumner, N.M., are the primary launch sites; others are in Alaska, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Brazil and Antarctica.

The record-breaking balloon mission, which carried instruments used by scientists from Washington University in St. Louis to search for the origin of cosmic rays, was launched from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, on Dec. 20. It took advantage of the favorable summer weather in that part of the world.

"This is the only time of year you can do it down there," Ball said. "In the summer, the sun never sets, which helps the balloon altitude performance. The stratospheric circulation carries the balloons around Antarctica at roughly the same latitude and returns the systems close to the launch site after two to four weeks."

The scientific balloons flown for NASA are made of a thin polyethylene material filled with helium that expands as the balloons rise. The Houston Astrodome could fit inside a fully inflated balloon at peak altitude.

The balloons can carry payloads weighing several thousand pounds to altitudes of about 125,000 feet. Conditions there are similar to those found in space, but the cost of getting there is much less, Hottman said.

"At that altitude, you are well above 99.9 percent of the earth's atmosphere," he said. "These balloons provide relatively low-cost access to near-space conditions."

The balloon that was brought down last Monday after 31 days and 20 hours aloft shows that "balloons can not only get you way up there, but also keep you there for a long period of time," Hottman said. That can be important for many scientific experiments -- like the cosmic ray research conducted on this flight -- where longer observations provide better results.

Hottman said PSL works closely with the manufacturer of NASA's scientific balloons on quality control and provides a wide range of engineering support for the missions. The solar power systems for the flights, for instance, are developed and manufactured at the lab's headquarters at New Mexico State University.

"We do a lot of thermal analysis here as well," he said. "If you're up in space, it's very cold, but in a balloon the heating effects from the sun can cause real problems. We help the experimenters with designs that mitigate the effects."

The next step in balloon technology is an ultra-long-duration balloon that can stay aloft for 100 days or more, Hottman said. These balloons, which utilize a different shape, "have a lot of potential commercial applications, in addition to scientific uses," he said. They might provide an inexpensive alternative to satellites as communications platforms, for instance.

"We've had some very successful flights from Fort Sumner and got some data that's allowing us to revise our designs," he said.

The Physical Science Laboratory has had NASA's Wallops Flight Facility scientific balloon contract since 1987 and previously was involved in balloon projects with the Department of Defense. The lab also is in the forefront of the emerging unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry. With funding from NASA, PSL's Technical Analysis and Applications Center (TAAC) is helping to develop certification and regulatory standards for remotely operated aircraft. Potential uses for UAVs include agricultural and environmental monitoring, disaster monitoring, aerial photography and mapping, scientific research, law enforcement activities and telecommunications relay.

Karl Hill
Jan. 28, 2002