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Ice Balloons: NASA Begins Antarctica Balloon Flight Campaign

Dec 01, 2016 04:31 AM EST

NASA has recently launched this year's Antarctica Long Duration Balloon Flight Campaign, an event where university students could fly experiments to the edge of space on board a scientific balloon.

University of Maryland's BACCUS mission will be the first of three payloads to take flight from Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf near McMurdo Station. The mission will focus on studying cosmic ray particles to investigate the density and the chemicals in the environment between stars, NASA said.

"Weather conditions and the readiness of our science teams all aligned to allow us to kick-off our Antarctica campaign earlier than in previous years," Gabe Garde, NASA mission manager, said in a statement"We had a smooth operation today with BACCUS, thanks in large part to the support from our friends in the National Science Foundation's United States Antarctic Program."

Other missions include the University of Hawaii's Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) and the University of Arizona's Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory (STO-II). ANITA will study the reactions in the core of stars, while STO-II is designed to understand the life cycle of the interstellar medium -- the matter that fills the space between stars.

For each flight, NASA uses its largest zero-pressure balloon, which could handle 40 million cubic feet of volume about the size of a football stadium when fully inflated.

Upon launch, each mission will float at a nearly constant altitude approximately 24 miles (39 kilometers) up in the atmosphere westward around the continent. According to NASA, an Antarctic mission could achieve around 20 days of flight. The payloads and instruments are all solar-powered and the Antarctic summer would be an ideal time for balloon flights as the region experiences sunlight 24 hours a day this time of year.

According to Debbie Fairbrother, NASA's Balloon Program Office Chief, the scientific balloon campaign could be an important training ground for aspiring scientists and engineers. "From astronauts and Noble-prize winning scientists, to engineers and technicians among the best in the business-balloons have been a starting point for so many, and I think that's the true value of HASP (High Altitude Student Platform)," Fairbrother said in a statement.

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