Notes from the Field

Eye of the SuperTIGER

December 18th, 2019 by Andy Hynous, NASA Balloon Program Office

Welcome again to below the 77th parallel.  I know it’s only been a few days since my last post went live, but I have some great news from WAY down south.  Today, I wanted to cover the picture-perfect launch of the SuperTIGER mission from our Long Duration Ballooning Camp from here outside McMurdo Station, Antarctica. 

On the 16thof December, we left McMurdo Station at 1 p.m. to catch a ride to our camp for a 10 p.m. launch attempt. Once we got there, our Weather Wizard (most people would call him a meteorologist, but what he does seems like magic to me) told us that the time we could launch the balloon would be later than we thought. How much later you ask? Try four hours later!!  So with that bit of good news, the launch crew and science team that were there to support launch did what they could to get ready and then we waited. Once we finally had a handle on how the winds were blowing, we started our launch operations. Aside from the delay, everything went as smooth as silk.


The fist picture shows the SuperTIGER instrument on our Mobile Launch Vehicle. Because we like our acronyms so much, we usually just call it the “MLV.”  The first thing that is done on a launch day is we take the instrument out and put in on our launch vehicle so the science team can make some final checks of their communication systems. Down here in Antarctica, we use a lot of satellite radios for transmitting the data from the instrument back to the computers that the scientists use to do their work.  All of this happens on the launch vehicle. 


The second picture shows SuperTIGER, the almost quarter mile flight train, and the very top section of the balloon waaaaaaaay in the back! Between SuperTIGER and the balloon is all the equipment we need to make the mission safely fly. There is a parachute, some more communication systems, and other stuff that allows us to track the balloon and make sure that it’s flying just fine.


The last photo for today is from the actual launch right after the balloon was released from the ground. It was a bit of a cloudy day, but for us all that really matters is that the winds aren’t too strong. 

I know… I know… Enough of this launch stuff, now you want to know what SuperTIGER does. Well, once again I’m just completely blown away but what our scientists can do. The SuperTIGER instrument is trying to see what kind of elements (like hydrogen, helium, iron… Stuff from the periodic table) are created when stars go supernova. SuperTIGER is primarily wanting to measure elements that are heavier than iron. The scientists that are taking these measurements are trying to understand how our own (home, sweet home) solar system was made. In the words of the principal investigator Brian Rauch: “It is true that the information we gather will help us understand how the stuff that we, our world, and indeed the rest of the visible universe are made of is created from the basic building blocks left over from the Big Bang. We are after all made of star dust, and we are measuring individual pieces of that.”  That’s pretty out of this world if you ask me!

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