This blog post is going to be a little different than my previous ones, so bear with me as I tread on new ground. I wanted to cover a little of what life is like down here in McMurdo Station while we’re launching our balloons for the Long Duration Balloon campaign here on the Ross Ice Shelf. My opening photo for today was taken from the top of Observation Hill, which is a 750-foot summit that overlooks McMurdo Station, and it took me about 45 minutes to climb one way, so enjoy! Now back to ballooning…
When we launch from most other locations around the globe, we have pretty set times for conducting our launches. In Fort Sumner, New Mexico we pretty much show up at about 3 a.m. for all attempts. With the very rare exception, we might have a night launch opportunity, but those are few and far between. In Palestine, Texas, where the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility is located, we launch balloons in the late afternoon which gives us pretty consistent night flight opportunities. All of this is really dependent on the prevailing winds at that time of the season. Esrange in Kiruna, Sweden and Wanaka, New Zealand (Spoiler: this is where the next series of blogs are going to come from!) aren’t quite as predictable, but are usually around the same time of day.
But here in Antarctica, the winds and weather are not nearly that predictable. So far this campaign, we’ve shown up at our camp for multiple launch attempts at 11 a.m. in the morning, 7 p.m. in the evening, and most recently we’ve been leaving at about 1-3 a.m. If this schedule sounds a little rough, well, that is because it is. I’ve already talked a little bit about SuperTIGER’s delay that was four hours, so even when trying to predict a start time that doesn’t mean the weather is going to cooperate.
As far as getting around, this place is like an off road testing facility of continental sized proportions! I’m not going to be able cover every type of vehicle that is roaming around down here, but I CAN show you some of my favorites! Since Christmas, we’ve essentially been working straight nights to conduct our launch attempts. Mostly, we’ve left McMurdo Station in a couple of off-road vans and a Delta shown above. As you can see in the picture, it’s a really big off road vehicle. Most of them down here were turned over to the National Science Foundation (NSF) when the U.S. Navy gave them the facility. So that shows that they were built to last and to take a beating.
When our schedules are a little more consistent, we get a ride from the United States Antarctic Program Shuttles Operations team for our daily commute. The Shuttle Ops team has a few different vehicles they use for our daily transport, but the most iconic is “Ivan the Terra Bus.” Ivan was also made by the same company that continues to provide the DELTAs.
And if you truly need to go where no one has gone before, you can take a Tucker Sno-Cat. I haven’t had the “pleasure” of riding around in one of these, but apparently they are a pretty rough and energetic ride. Oh, and loud. Really, really loud for the passengers. But since they are a treaded vehicle, they really don’t need roads to get where they’re going.
Like I said at the start, this isn’t my usual forte for my blogs, but the engineer in me is always fascinated by big machines that work in extreme environments. And here in Antarctica, everything has to perform or none of the amazing science that is done here would be possible. I have to also say that the support we get from NSF and their team makes all of our launches possible and we wouldn’t be able to launch our balloons without them. Thanks again for checking in and I hope you liked this glimpse into our daily lives here.
I realize that, you know, its New Year’s and all. But while everyone is waiting for that big ball to drop in Times Square, here outside McMurdo, we’ve been working to send balloons UP! We just had a super successful launch of a 0.6 million cubic foot (MCF) balloon. Now, for us at in the Balloon Program Office, that’s a pretty small balloon; we generally launch balloons that are anywhere from 4 to 39 MCF. But the 0.6 MCF platform gives us a capability to support a whole lot of scientists that have small and very sensitive instruments with the ability to go where only we can take them. Up above you can see how these small balloons look just prior to launch.
This flight really supported two missions for us. First of all, the instrument that we launched on the balloon was a part of a program ran by Dr. Robyn Millan at Dartmouth College. Robyn and her team are using the BARREL instrument to study electron losses from the Van Allen Radiation Belts. The instrument is able to capture when electrons literally fall out of the sky and measure their energy. One of the big things that their work will help everyone with is how to better protect satellites from the radiation in space.
The second thing we want from this launch is for the balloon to be a pathfinder for a future NASA Explorers Program mission. We will use the trajectory that this flight follows, a similar flight from last year, and another follow on flight scheduled for next year to help bound the expected flight path for the future GUSTO mission. GUSTO will be studying emissions from the particles that are in interstellar (between the stars) space and help shed light on the lifecycle of stars in our galaxy.
Now, I realize that 0.6 MCF is a pretty abstract number, so for those of you (like me) that think in real dimensions I wanted to give you an idea of just how “small” these balloons really are. When fully inflated, the 0.6 MCF balloon is 72.5 feet by 124.5 feet (yes, I said feet), and it quite frankly looks like a pumpkin! So if you take your average pumpkin from October and make it 55 times bigger then you have a 0.6 MCF balloon. Easy, right? Another way to visualize it is if you took three full sized school buses and put them end to end, then that’d be the diameter of this balloon. Sounds pretty small to me.
I also want to circle back to that “pumpkin” shape I mentioned earlier. Another thing that made this launch super was that this was a Super Pressure Balloon. This design of balloon actually maintains constant pressure during its entire flight (just like a party balloon), and that gives us very good altitude stability during day and night transitions and long flight durations. Our record from last year’s Antarctic campaign was 73 days.
My picture today is of the BARREL instrument at the foot of our flight line with Mt. Erebus in the background. And if you look behind BARREL, the red plastic on the ground is our balloon in its covering that protects it while we lay it out prior to launch. Thanks again for checking out my Notes from the Field: Balloons for Science blog. And most importantly, have a happy New Year!
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!
So, I realize it’s been awhile since I’ve managed an update from the balloon blogging scene, but hopefully this will help make up for it. Since I left you in New Mexico, the Balloon Program Office finished out our domestic campaign coming out with a very successful group of flights. But, finishing up there wasn’t the end of our operations for 2019.
Right now, your intrepid engineer is currently deployed to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to support launch operations from one of the most remote locations on the planet. So you know, that’s pretty cool … get it? We’re in the process of gearing up for our launches here at the Long Duration Balloon Camp just outside McMurdo. We’re going to be conducting a few smaller balloon flights and then a couple of our big balloons. I’ll send out some more details over the next few days.
The question I regularly get about why the Balloon Program comes to Antarctica is why do we launch balloons from the South Pole? Well, we come down here because, quite frankly, there is no other place like it. During the austral summer (that’s a fancy way of saying when the Northern Hemisphere is in winter and the Southern Hemisphere is in their summer), the Sun never sets here, so no matter what time you go outside, it looks like it’s about 11 o’clock in the morning. And since the Sun is always shining, our balloons are able to stay at the same altitude and fly for many weeks before they need to be brought down. Last year we had a flight that flew for 73 days!
Another thing that makes Antarctica special for balloon launches is that the Van Allen radiation belts are at a much lower altitude near the pole of the planet. The Van Allen Belts are kind of like a magnetic bottle around the Earth that protect it from solar (from the Sun) and cosmic (from way outside our solar system) rays. The Van Allen radiation belts can also interfere with some of our scientists’ instruments when they’re conducting experiments from most other places around the world. But, down here in Antarctica, just like the North Pole, the Van Allen radiation belts are very weak, so when our scientists fly from here they are able to get images and measurements in greater detail than anywhere else.
Antarctica is truly a strange, new world where you can see and experience new, exciting things. The photo I’ve attached today is of Mount Erebus, our friendly neighborhood volcano, which was discovered by James Ross in 1841 and was named after one of his two ships, the H.M.S Erebus.
Jason Budinoff, an aerospace engineer, cocked his head, listening for the sound of metal on metal. “Can you hear it?” someone asked. The room quieted, and a soft, tinny buzz whined from the instrument at the center of the crowd. Inside, a small electric motor was spinning.
It was three weeks before launch, and the BITSE team was testing the door on their instrument, which was almost ready for its balloon flight to the top of the sky. Eventually, BITSE successfully flew on Sept. 18. But the work toward its launch started a couple years earlier — and continued with tests of each detail up to the very last weeks before launch. One key element: the door.
Slightly larger than a pie, BITSE’s door works like the lens cap on a camera to protect the instrument’s sensitive optics. Instead of scratches, it shielded BITSE from dust and bugs that could fly in during ascent. Once it climbed to float altitude, 22 miles up in much less dusty skies, the door opened and BITSE began taking pictures of the Sun.
The BITSE balloon flight put a new coronagraph to the test, a kind of instrument that looks at the Sun’s dim atmosphere. The BITSE tech — short for Balloon-borne Investigation of Temperature and Speed of Electrons in the corona — is designed to look for clues to how the solar wind forms. That’s the stream of charged particles constantly blowing off the Sun. The solar scope takes images in certain wavelengths of light that are especially prone to scattering off dust, marking data with distracting bright spots. “The cleaner we are, the better science we’ll get,” said Budinoff, BITSE’s lead mechanical engineer.
That morning was as much a test of the team’s nerves as it was of the door. It was the last time they’d run it before launch, and BITSE was decked out in flight configuration.
Software engineer Seonghwan Choi and his team wrote the code that tells BITSE to open sesame. They work for the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, NASA’s partner in the BITSE mission. “If the software doesn’t work and the door doesn’t open, the mission will fail!” Choi said. He laughed nervously at the idea. Take a picture with a camera but forget to remove the lens cap first, and you just get the void — no data.
By then, they’d already done the test at least eight times. This was BITSE’s biggest audience yet, since the entire team was gathered at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility’s New Mexico field site for the coming launch. “When literally the entire mission is saying, ‘Your door better work!’ — the more we test the door, the better,” Budinoff told me. “I’d do it 50 more times if I could.”
It works like this: A one-centimeter-long pin — about the width of a fingernail — keeps the door latched shut, while a screw moves the pin back and forth. When BITSE receives the word, a tiny motor starts running and the screw starts turning. And that pulls the pin out from the latch, allowing the spring-loaded door to flip open. The entire thing hinges — literally — on the pin moving just half a centimeter. From sending the command to opening the door, it all takes no more than 45 seconds.
A few minutes before the test, the team gathered in front of BITSE. Scientists brought their phones out to film it. I did the same. “It’s not going to be nearly as exciting as everyone is thinking,” Budinoff warned.
Regardless, someone began a countdown. (We at NASA love a good countdown.) “Here it comes!” another called. BITSE buzzed for a brief moment, and the door fell open with a neat, hollow thunk. Satisfied, Budinoff started a round of applause.
Later, they ran a second test. It looked just like the first one, but there was one key difference. Instead of sending a command, the software team let BITSE guide itself. This was the back-up plan in case they lose contact with BITSE. Without instructions from the ground, the coronagraph was programmed to open its own door after a few hours — the amount of time it would take the 6,000-pound load to ascend 22 miles. Even if it couldn’t hear the team, BITSE would dutifully stick to the plan.
After the second test, while the door was still open, the engineers took the opportunity to vacuum BITSE’s mouth. They used an ultraviolet flashlight to spot individual specks of dust, which pop in electric blues and greens under the light. With the door thoroughly tested and the tidying done, it was time to shut it one last time. The software team ran the program backwards, turning the screw the opposite direction so it pushed the pin into the latch. We listened again for motor’s high-pitched whine. “Hopefully the next time we open, we’ll be 120,000 feet in the air,” Budinoff said.
In the end, their worrying, testing and re-testing was worth it: On Sept. 18, BITSE’s door opened like a charm.