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High-altitude Balloons for Atmospheric and Astrophysical Research

Critical to the development of new space technology, unmanned, high-altitude balloons offer a cost-effective avenue for science investigations and flight hardware tests. USRA scientists provide engineering and instrumentation expertise in payload development, participate in launch activities, and provide analysis of balloon observations gathered from atmospheric and astrophysical sources.

USRA is involved in cosmic-ray research, which includes its support of the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) balloon experiment; this has now flown seven times in Antarctica. Through balloon technology, CREAM measures the energy and abundance of galactic cosmic ray particles from 1011-1015 eV. USRA scientists fly instruments like the CREAM instrument via long duration balloons around the world to measure particles and photons from astrophysical sources as part of their work with CRESST at NASA Goddard.

USRA also supports the Super-TIGER program (formally referred to as the Super Trans-Iron Galactic Element REcorder Cosmic Ray Experiment) which broke the record for longest flight by a balloon of its size, flying for 55 days, December 2012, through January 2013. CRESST scientists, Thomas Hams, Makoto Sasaki and Jason Link, USRA, participate in this experiment which is meant to determine the abundance and origin of heavy cosmic rays. The SuperTiger instrument was recovered in Antarctica in January 2015, two years after the record-breaking flight.

Path of SuperTIGER over Antarctica

Image: Path of the SuperTiger instrument over Antarctica.

SuperTIGER recovery in Antarctica

Image: The SuperTiger instrument is recovered in Antarctica in January 2015, two years after the record-breaking flight.

Also in line with current balloon technology, in April 2011 the HERO Hard X-ray balloon payload was successfully launched from Alice Springs, Australia with support from scientists and engineers at USRA's Science and Technology Institute. The High-Energy Replicated Optics (HERO) mirrors used in the telescope are based on the Wolter-1 geometry and are constructed of an electro-formed-nickel-replication process. Hard X-rays were considered a new wavelength band, when HERO initially launched in 2001. Due to HERO's focusing mirrors, which produce high-energy reflectivity, these x-rays provide highly sensitive images, and can also be used for small animal imaging.