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Space Science

Huge Balloon Lofts New Telescope 85

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the not-just-hot-air dept.
Science Daily is reporting that a new solar telescope has been launched via an enormous balloon filled with helium. Dubbed project "Sunrise" the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), NASA, Germany's Max Planck Institute for Solar Physics, Spain's Astrophysics Institute of the Canary Islands, and the Swedish Space Corporation all partnered to launch the balloon in order to view never before see features of the Sun. "The project may usher in a new generation of balloon-borne scientific missions that cost less than sending instruments into space. Scientists also can test an instrument on a balloon before making a commitment to launch it on a rocket. The balloon, with its gondola of scientific instruments, was launched successfully on the morning of October 3 from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. It flew for about 10 hours, capturing stable images of the solar surface and additional data from the various instruments of the sophisticated payload. The gondola then separated from the balloon and descended with a parachute, landing safely in a field outside Dalhart, Texas."
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Huge Balloon Lofts New Telescope

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  • What were the results of experiment #1? The curious public wants to know!
  • by Anonymous Coward
    A) The went at night.
  • Wouldn't the images not be as clear because of the Earths' atmosphere? It would still probably be better quality images then a ground based telescope. Why not just use a plane and add some technology to steady the camera?
    • Re:Poor Images (Score:4, Informative)

      by $RANDOMLUSER (804576) on Wednesday October 24, 2007 @04:31PM (#21104773)
      The first sentence of TFA:

      In a landmark test flight, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and a team of research partners this month successfully launched a solar telescope to an altitude of 120,000 feet, borne by a balloon larger than a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
      Find a plane that will do 120,000 feet for any length of time.
      • The USAF's SR-71 used to super-cruise at over 100,000ft. It's been retired for years now, however.
        • Re:Poor Images (Score:4, Interesting)

          by bkr1_2k (237627) on Wednesday October 24, 2007 @04:59PM (#21105159)
          Actually NASA still flies them occasionally for research. Or they did up until a few years ago at least. I suppose they could have been retired for real by now though. And even if your data is accurate about altitude (none of the SR-71 pilots I met ever confirmed anything higher than 85K) that's still 20,000 shy of the altitude the balloon reached. I don't know how much difference it makes because you can see space fairly clearly from anything above 80 or so.
        • > It's been retired for years now, however.

          Sure, that's what "they" want you think, man. They only retired them 'cause they had something better. Hell, they've got stuff at Area 51 that'll

          HEY! WHERE'D YOU GUYS COM

          [NO CARRIER]
      • I wonder if they could put a small rocket as the payload, and blast off further into orbit...sure thats gotta be an engineering nightmare though...thoughts anyone?
        • There are people working on using airships (balloons) to get to orbit more cheaply...

          http://www.jpaerospace.com/ [jpaerospace.com]
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Rei (128717)
          Blah. Why hoist a telescope with a balloon when you can have the balloon *be* the telescope?

          First off, you need a parabolic mirror. The natural shape for inflatables is ellipsoid, not a parabola. That's a problem. The natural shape for a tensioned structure hanging is a catenary curve, also not a paraboloid. However, if its mass is insignificant in comparison to a uniform force applied to it, the natural shape is indeed a parabola. That is, to say, you can make inflatable parabolic mirrors by using a
    • They wouldn't be *as* clear, however the balloons would be above the majority of the earth's atmosphere so they would have far smaller problems adjusting for atmospheric distortion and probably wouldn't need adaptive optics to do so.

      Additionally, even if adaptive optics are needed, it would cost far less to install them temporarily on a test system and launch via balloon than actually launch a full-scale test satellite.
    • True, but the higher you go in the atmosphere, the less distortion. And targets such as the Moon and the Sun aren't nearly as affected by atmospheric distortion as, say, some stars that are millions of light years away. Sending up a balloon strikes a balance between the cost of sending a telescope into space or repositioning Hubble and the total atmospheric distortion experienced by ground-based telescopes.

      And for your second queestion: because hot air balloons are a WHOLE lot cheaper to fly than an airpl
    • The baloon flies higher than a plane can and is probably much cheaper (think of the fuel costs with keeping a plane in the air for 10+ hours). The purpose is to get above most of the atmospheric turbulance and moisture. Space is even clearer, but this is still much better than looking from the ground.
    • by blhack (921171) *
      Well if you would have read the article, you would have noticed that the balloon was flying at 120,000 feet. In this case, a balloon has serious advantages over a plane:

      airplanes don't fly this high.
      If we had one that did (hell, maybe we do) it would be hideously expensive to both A) Purchase and B) operate. Not to mention the fact that to sustain flight at that altitutde you would need some SERIOUS speed.

      And about earth's atmosphere....the point of the balloon was to ESCAPE earth's atmosphere. In your o
    • Wouldn't the images not be as clear because of the Earths' atmosphere? It would still probably be better quality images then a ground based telescope.

      120kfeet is above a good deal of the sensible atmosphere - but the idea of sending up that high wasn't to avoid atmospheric distortion, but to avoid atmospheric filtering - I.E. to see the Sun in wavelengths that don't make it to the ground.
  • Perhaps then they can investigate how sun variations impacts global warming?
    • What!! You mean Al Gore lied to me!? *covers ears*
    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      "A 2006 study and review of existing literature, published in Nature, determined that there has been no net increase in solar brightness since the mid 1970s, and that changes in solar output [wikipedia.org] within the past 400 years are unlikely to have played a major part in global warming."

      HTH
      • "A 2006 study and review of existing literature, published in Nature, determined that there has been no net increase in solar brightness since the mid 1970s, and that changes in solar output within the past 400 years are unlikely to have played a major part in global warming."

        I love how you left out...

        It should be stressed, the same report cautions that "Apart from solar brightness, more subtle influences on climate from cosmic rays or the Sun's ultraviolet radiation cannot be excluded, say the authors
  • What if the balloon pops? Isn't that a lot of incredibly expensive equipment thats going to go tumbling down? I can just see that advertisements of pranksters now... Classified Ad: Looking to charter a private airplane flight and hire a professional marksman
    • Who said a bow and arrow was useless?

      A bow and arrow is useless just use a gun :)
      Myself personally if I were to pop that thing I would use a thumb tack. A bow & arrow and a gun take all the fun out of it.
    • Heh heh, since your so high up why not be green and use the power of the sun? *runs off to buy magnifying glass*
    • Maybe you missed the part in TFA (and TFS) where it's designed to go tumbling down via parachute, roll cages, and crush pads?
    • by Ogive17 (691899)
      I'd assume if the balloon popped the parachute system would kick in. The same system that guided it back to solid ground once they cut the balloon loose.
    • I've had a balloon flight aborted due to a tear on a balloon. Even with a 4600 pound gondola, the balloon flew for at least 3 additional hours. Balloons this size have low pressure, and are fairly robust. They don't behave the same as the balloons used for birthday parties..

  • by toQDuj (806112) on Wednesday October 24, 2007 @04:29PM (#21104741) Homepage Journal
    > landing safely in a field outside Dalhart, Texas.

    whereupon it was shot to smithereens by a farmer shouting "The Russians are here, The Russians are here!"

    B.
    • field===dalhart (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      >landing safely in a field outside Dalhart, Texas.

      redundant.

      What else is there to hit outside of Dalhart [google.com]?
    • In other news, hordes of peoples wearing green alien masks and carrying signs that read "We welcome our new overlords" have descended on Dalhart, Texas, leaving Roswell, New Mexico a ghost town.

      The government is claiming that a UFO, which crashed in Dalhart on October 22, is in fact a balloon from a weather experiment, the same official reason given for the July 1947 crash that triggered the alien invasion culture. UFO supporters are skeptical.
  • Balloons are not new (Score:4, Informative)

    by crumley (12964) * on Wednesday October 24, 2007 @04:30PM (#21104753) Homepage Journal

    Though this sounds like a very interesting project, the use of balloons (and sounding rockets) for instruments that might later fly in space is not new. Cosmic ray studies have been using balloons for since 1912 [nasa.gov].

    What may be new here is using balloons for instruments that need to be aimed precisely. Detectors on previous balloons were usually omni-directional, or could make measurements over large surface angles. Their Sun-tracking technology aiming sounds interesting, and I look forward to reading about their results

    • Of course its not new, Hans Pfaal was doing this stuff in the early 1800s.
    • TFA: The balloon is designed to carry 6,000 pounds of equipment, including a 1-meter (39-inch) solar telescope...

      Compare to [si.edu]:
      Stratoscope II was the largest and most sophisticated balloon-borne astronomical telescope flown in the 1960s and early 1970s. A follow-on project to Stratoscope I, a 12-inch balloon born telescope conceived by Martin Schwarzschild, it was a 36-inch reflector mounted in a 3.5-ton stabilized gondola and studied the infra-red molecular composition of planetary atmospheres, the atmosphere
      • They called them Rockoons:

        The original concept of "Rockoons" was developed by Cmdr. Lee Lewis, Cmdr. G. Halvorson, S. F. Singer, and James A. Van Allen during the Aerobee rocket firing cruise of the U.S.S. Norton Sound on March 1, 1949. ...

        As TIME reported in 1959, "Van Allen's 'Rockoons' could not be fired in Iowa for fear that the spent rockets would strike an Iowan or his house." So Van Allen convinced the U.S. Coast Guard to let him fire his rockoons from the icebreaker Eastwind that was bound for Green

        • This is different. You're describing rockets launched from a balloon. The stratoscopes where telescopes suspended from a balloon - no incenduaries required.
    • by Xandu (99419) *
      Not only are they not new, but reporting them on slashdot isn't as well.
      BLAST Balloon [slashdot.org]
      • by Xandu (99419) *
        I hate to reply to my own post, but...

        For those of you actually reading this far down in the thread, follow the link to the slashdot article about the BLAST balloon. It includes several links which may be of interest, including a few photo blogs from the people who are actually involved in these types of balloon launches.
  • by Dr. Zowie (109983) <slashdot@NOSPaM.deforest.org> on Wednesday October 24, 2007 @04:31PM (#21104771)
    The payload (SUNRISE) is designed to carry a 1-meter telescope with a full complement of scientific instruments. This flight had a small (30 cm) stand-in telescope, to test the active pointing system, and a camera with a small array of narrowband filters, to see what wavelengths are visible from the flight altitude.

    Strangely enough, some the components of sunlight at 120,000 feet altitude are not well known. Some interesting ultraviolet lines (the "h" and "k" lines from Magnesium) are thought to be visible there, that are not visible on the ground -- but nobody has yet characterized the ultraviolet absorption spectrum from the very upper layers of the stratosphere and from the mesosphere. Most telescopes that have flown so high were rocketing through on their way to space, rather than floating under a balloon. So this first flight was both to test the pointing (and other flight control) systems, and to double check that some desired wavelengths are present and usable at the target altitude.

    Even the test flight of SUNRISE was a real accomplishment: it is far from the ideal of small, cheap, lightweight, quick-and-dirty payloads under scientific balloons, and is run more like a space mission both in terms of payload complexity and in terms of team management. The team is multinational and the payload is subject to rigorous engineering and testing.

    The balloon flight environment is in some ways more harsh than the vacuum of space: payloads are subjected to wild temperature swings on climbout, and the thermal environment is not nearly as controllable as it is in empty space. On the other hand, launch and flight are very gentle compared to unmanned space shots.

  • by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Wednesday October 24, 2007 @04:34PM (#21104837) Homepage
    While the scope and precision of this project appears to be admirable and new, the idea of using balloons to loft telescopes is most certainly not, though the summary and article may both give that impression. They launch balloons in Antarctica all the time for astronomical observations (remember BOOMERANG?) and much of the initial attempts to view the universe through non-optical, non-radio wavelengths (the ones where our atmosphere is basically opaque) was done with balloons in addition to the sounding rockets.
    • by Shag (3737)

      While the scope and precision of this project appears to be admirable and new

      And price, one would hope...

      much of the initial attempts to view the universe through non-optical, non-radio wavelengths (the ones where our atmosphere is basically opaque)

      What he's saying here, folks, is "ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma ray."

      Pesky atmosphere. Always getting in the way of the observing and keeping us from getting to the 0.3" limit of our optics! :(

      • What he's saying here, folks, is "ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma ray."
        Also infrared and microwave (BOOMERANG was in the latter region of the spectrum).
        • by Shag (3737)

          What he's saying here, folks, is "ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma ray."

          Also infrared and microwave (BOOMERANG was in the latter region of the spectrum).

          Well... given enough atmosphere you can get basically opaque in those wavelengths, sure.

          But while leading Saturday's summit tour on Mauna Kea, before the Slashdot 10th Anniversary not-quite-a-party [slashdot.org], I intend to show the gathered geeks and tourists things like:

          ULBCAM, the 16-megapixel testbed for the sensor technology being used in NIRCAM on JWST
          UKIRT, the largest (for now) dedicated infrared telescope in the world (3.8m)
          NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) (3.0m)
          CalTech Submillimeter Observatory (10.4

          • Well, sure, if you get to the right altitude and dry air you can see through. But I can't think of a dedicated microwave telescope that isn't atop a fairly inaccessible mountain, ideally somewhere extremely dry (such as Atacoma). And surely you won't deny that there have been microwave and IR telescopes lofted via balloons, especially before we had decent access to the high, dry sites (or tools like Sophia).

            I think we're stridently agreeing. ;-)
            • by Shag (3737)

              =I can't think of a dedicated microwave telescope that isn't atop a fairly inaccessible mountain, ideally somewhere extremely dry (such as Atacoma).

              Fairly inaccessible? The summit of Mauna Kea is only 2 hours from the beach - and that's counting 30 minutes of acclimatizing. And we don't even have to have the Unimogs plow the road open in the spring like Mt. Evans. ;)

              Areas away from civilization are popular for other reasons, and OVRO and BIMA don't appear to have been built at very high altitudes. Maybe a thousand or so meters? Not sure about the site of the combined CARMA array, though.

              Yes ALMA is insanely high. CSO, JCMT and SMA, less so.

    • by Xandu (99419) *
      True, and all the balloons launched from Antarctica (or Northern Sweden when under CSBF control) are put on test flights from places like Palestine, Texas and Ft. Sumner, New Mexico first (like this one).
      Check out the CSBF [slashdot.org]webpage for more info.

      And a shameless plug to a previous slashdot article [slashdot.org] on the most recent launch of BLAST, another balloon-borne telescope.
  • With this very unpleasin', sneezin' and wheezin, the calliope crashed to the ground
    The calliope crashed to the ground
    But she was blinded by the light,
    revved up like a deuce, like a runner in the night

    -mcgrew
  • that's a space station!
    • by davidsyes (765062)
      Cue the Austin Powers jokes:

      Dick,
      Bob,
      Dong,

      How many balloons? Two? OK, but if THREE, then call ET.. (the Extra TESTical)...

      Sorry...

      (Captcha: wormed)
  • I have it on good authority from a NASA insider that this is the mission overview for STS-121:

    Day 1: Launch
    Day 2: Inspect shuttle thermal protection system for damage.
    Day 3: Inspect shuttle thermal protection system for damage.
    Day 4: Repair thermal protection system.
    Day 5: Repair thermal protection system.
    Day 6: Repair thermal protection system.
    Day 7: Re-inspect shuttle thermal protection system for damage.
    Day 8: Mission conclusion, return to Earth. :/
    -Ponga
  • With all our talk of "being green" a balloon the size of a 747 coming down in the ocean would equal a big blob of pollution. Does it break down easy? Do they recover it? I did RTFA and didn't find anything on the after use cleanup. And that IS on really big blob of balloon.
    • by Xandu (99419) *
      As a scientist who has worked on other (unrelated) balloon telescopes (launched by the same CSBF crew), I can tell you that the balloon is about 1000-2000kg of dry-cleaner bag plastic. Upon termination, it wads up into a big mess. They do recover it if they can find it (they usually can except in the case of flights in Antarctica where it is difficult to locate), but it is not recycled or reused in any way, it's trash. CSBF does aim to recover absolutely everything that they launch. A previous slashdot [slashdot.org]
  • by pomakis (323200) <pomakis@pobox.com> on Wednesday October 24, 2007 @05:55PM (#21105831) Homepage
    I find it sad that so much helium is used for projects like this. Okay, most readers at this point are probably already thinking I'm some eco nutcase, but hear me out for a bit, because I think what I'm about to say is something that most people haven't really given any thought to.

    There are renewable resources (trees, etc.) and non-renewable resources (oil, etc.). But at least the raw elements of these resources stay around on Earth, and can conceivably be used again in the future for something else. In essense, the elemental composition of the earth has remained mostly constant for the past few billion years; it's only the molecules that the elements are bound up in and where that changes over time. Put it this way, if humans die off tomorrow, there'll be plenty of new oil for the insect overlords that evolve in a billion years, because the raw material for the oil is still churning around in the Earth's biological and geological systems.

    But helium... well, helium is special. It has two interesting properties. Firstly, it is a very light element. Hydrogen and helium are so light that as individual atoms they freely escape the Earth's gravitational system and leak out into space. That means forever. Secondly, it is completely inert. It does not and cannot bind to any other molecule to weigh it down. This is in contrast to hydrogen, which is almost always bound up in a molecule of some sort. Thus, helium is the ONLY element that, when released into the atmosphere, will eventually leak out into space and be lost to the Earth forever. The only reason we have helium on Earth now is because a bunch of it is trapped in sand particles (that's where we mine it from). But once we mine it and use it, it's gone. And I mean gone gone. Deep space gone. Helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe (and the sun has a lot of it), but unless it's available on Earth, that fact is completely useless to us. We can't make new helium, other than through nuclear fusion of two hydrogen atoms. And that's not a manufacturing process we (or the future insect overlords) are ever going to undertake.

    And this is all a great shame, too, since helium, being the lightest inert gas, is incredibly useful. I can't help but think that in a few hundred years (yes, I realize that it's probably that far away) humans will be kicking themselves for having blown helium in such great quantities in complete disregard for the fact that it could never, for the rest of humanity and beyond, be used again.

    Think about that the next time you order a dozen helium balloons for your kid's next birthday party!

    • You could always put some boron in a nuclear reactor and make some helium...
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Not quite true on any aspect except that helium does depart the atmosphere. Helium comes from natural gas, the deposits of which trap helium being created (yeah, created) by radioactive decay. It's created in nuclear reactors and will be a waste product from fusion reactors. It's a renewable resource. The higher parts of the atmosphere also have a significant density of helium (though high enough that the density is pretty low if you're trying to collect it.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Richard Kirk (535523)

      I thought helium came up with Texas oil. Not all oil, but US oil was particularly rich in it. In the 1930's the US did not like exporting the stuff as you could fill zeppelins with it. That's why the British filled the R101, and the Germans filled the Hindenberg with hydrogen. In the UK, we used to collect all the helium we could from low-termperature experiments, stuff it into cylinders, and send it back for re-liquefaction. In the US, they just let it boil away at the time.

      At the time, I was told that

    • I'm curious as to what you suggest we use instead. Hydrogen? That'd go over well.

      A small village in Germany was evacuated today after being set afire by the latest in a string of a dozen weather-balloon accidents.

      Also, get your facts straight. Helium is extracted from natural gas, not sand. Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium#Occurrence_and_production [wikipedia.org]:

      Nearly all helium on Earth is a result of radioactive decay. The decay product is primarily found in minerals of uranium and thorium, including cleveites, pitchblende, carnotite, monazite and beryl, because they emit alpha particles, which consist of helium nuclei (He2+) to which electrons readily combine. In this way an estimated 3.4 litres of helium per year are generated per cubic kilometer of the Earth's crust.

  • They sent a great ball of helium up into space in order to get a better look at a great ball of helium up in space?
  • Was it just me that imagined an erect telescope with two big BALLoons lifting it up?
  • The project may usher in a new generation of balloon-borne scientific missions that cost less than sending instruments into space. Scientists also can test an instrument on a balloon before making a commitment to launch it on a rocket. The balloon, with its gondola of scientific instruments, was launched successfully on the morning of October 3 from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

    Sounds like someone is a little excited about their balloon flight. First of all, congratu

  • So the gondola was safely parachuted back to the ground. But what about the balloon? Is it still floating around up there somewhere, above 120Kft? If they launch a whole bunch of these balloons, won't they eventually offer a floating layer dispersed at 25 miles up? At 130Kft, the distance to the horizon is over 400mi in each direction, or 800mi between opposite horizons. So 30 balloons could see each other, and the ground, in a chain around the world. Less than 300 balloons could cover the under 150Km^2 lan [wikipedia.org]

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