Draft:Balloons for astronomy

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A research balloon is readied for launch. Credit: NASA.

Balloons provide a long-duration platform to study any atmosphere, the universe, the Sun, and the near-Earth and space environment above as much as 99.7 % of the Earth's atmosphere. Unlike a rocket where data are collected during a brief few minutes, balloons are able to stay aloft for much longer. Balloons for astronomy offer a low-cost, quick-response method for conducting scientific investigations. They are mobile, meaning they can be launched where the scientist needs to conduct the experiment, in as little as six months.


With appropriate calibrations for the atmosphere at or above a circumnavigational glider or superballoon, astronomical observations should be at least as good as those from satellites at much lower cost.


The super pressure balloons flown by the NASA program are essentially very large pressure vessels. Credit: NASA Official: David L. Pierce, Curator: Brandon Wright.{{free media}}
This seven-million-cubic-foot super-pressure balloon is the largest single-cell, super-pressure, fully-sealed balloon ever flown. Credit: NASA.{{free media}}

The Ultra Long Duration Balloon (ULDB) Project is developing new composite materials and a new balloon design, a standard gondola including power, global telemetry/command and an altitude control system. The ULDB is seeking to improve mission control and operations and the integration of scientific instruments. It is the potential for longer duration flights that has been the driver for the resurgence of interest in balloons by the scientific community. In recent years, the manned global ballooning attempts have called attention to the difficulty of achieving “longer”.

"High altitude balloons are an inexpensive means of getting payloads to the brink of space [The first test shown in the image on the left] was launched from McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The balloon reached a float altitude of more than 111,000 feet and maintained it for the entire 11 days of flight. [...] The flight tested the durability and functionality of the scientific balloon’s novel globe-shaped design and the unique lightweight and thin polyethylene film. It launched on December 28, 2008 and returned on January 8, 2009."[1]

"The University of Hawaii Manoa’s Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna launched December 21, 2008, and is still aloft. Its radio telescope is searching for indirect evidence of extremely high-energy neutrino particles possibly coming from outside our Milky Way galaxy."[1]

Planetary sciences[edit]

Research balloons are balloons that are used for scientific research. They are usually (though not always) unmanned, filled with a lighter-than-air gas like helium, and fly at high altitudes.

Theoretical balloon astronomy[edit]

Cosmic-ray telescopes[edit]

The various background effects OSO 1 encountered prompted the flight of similar detectors on a balloon to determine the cosmic-ray effects in the materials surrounding the detectors.


Measurements "of the cosmic-ray positron fraction as a function of energy have been made using the High-Energy Antimatter Telescope (HEAT) balloon-borne instrument."[2]

"The first flight took place from Fort Sumner, New Mexico, [on May 3, 1994, with a total time at float altitude of 29.5 hr and a mean atmospheric overburden of 5.7 g cm-2] ... The second flight [is] from Lynn Lake, Manitoba, [on August 23, 1995, with a total time at float altitude of 26 hr, and a mean atmospheric overburden of 4.8 g cm-2]".[2]

Gamma rays[edit]

On June 19, 1988, from Birigüi (50° 20' W 21° 20' S) at 10:15 UTC a balloon launch occurred which carried two NaI(Tl) detectors (600 cm2 total area) to an air pressure altitude of 5.5 mb for a total observation time of 6 hr.[3] The supernova SN1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) was discovered on February 23, 1987, and its progenitor is a blue supergiant (Sk -69 202) with luminosity of 2-5 x 1038 erg/s.[3] The 847 keV and 1238 keV gamma-ray lines from 56Co decay have been detected.[3]

"Gamma rays at energies of 0.3 to 8 megaelectron volts (MeV) were detected on 15 April 1988 from four nuclear-powered satellites including Cosmos 1900 and Cosmos 1932 as they flew over a double Compton gamma-ray telescope."[4]


The MeV Auroral X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy experiment (MAXIS) is carried aloft by a balloon. Credit: Michael McCarthy and NASA.
Between January 12-30, 2000 the MAXIS balloon successfully circumnavigated the South Pole. Credit: Michael McCarthy.{{free media}}
The Crab Nebula is a remnant of an exploded star. This image shows the Crab Nebula in various energy bands, including a hard X-ray image from the HEFT data taken during its 2005 observation run. Each image is 6′ wide. Credit: CM Hubert Chen, Fiona A. Harrison, Principal Investigator, Caltech Charles J. Hailey, Columbia Principal, Columbia, Finn E. Christensen, DSRI Principal, DSRI, William W. Craig, Optics Scientist, LLNL, Stephen M. Schindler, Project Manager, Caltech.

The MeV Auroral X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy experiment (MAXIS) was carried aloft by a balloon for a 450 h flight from McMurdo Station, Antarctica. The MAXIS flight detected an auroral X-ray event possibly associated with the solar wind as it interacted with the upper atmosphere between January 22nd and 26th, 2000.[5]

"Between January 12-30, 2000 the MAXIS balloon successfully circumnavigated the South Pole at altitudes of about 120,000 feet and was similar to the 1998 northern hemisphere balloon flight in its science objectives. During the mission, the auroral x-ray instruments on MAXIS recorded an event between 21:20 UT January 19 and 00:20 UT January 20. Also, an auroral x-ray event possibly associated with a shock in the solar wind was observed between January 22-26, 2000."[6]

"The scientific purpose for the MAXIS flight is to study electron precipitation from the magnetosphere into the ionosphere. This electron precipitation creates the aurora (northern and southern lights) along with X-rays which can be observed with our balloon instrumentation. The MAXIS balloon was terminated on January 30, 2000 at 22:13 UT after a successful 450 hour flight. The balloon was cut-down over Victoria Land, approximately 390 nautical miles from McMurdo Station. On February 3, 2000 the recovery team (Steven Peterzen and Robyn Millan) reached the payload via Twin Otter and found the gondola in relatively good condition considering it had come to a stop upside down following landing. The data vault containing the hard drive, the UW x-ray imagers, the BGO detector, and three of the four sun-sensor arrays were among the components successfully recovered."[6]

Balloon flights can carry instruments to altitudes of up to 40 km above sea level, where they are above as much as 99.997% of the Earth's atmosphere. Unlike a rocket where data are collected during a brief few minutes, balloons are able to stay aloft for much longer. However, even at such altitudes, much of the X-ray spectrum is still absorbed. X-rays with energies less than 35 keV (5,600 aJ) cannot reach balloons.

"On July 21, 1964, the Crab Nebula supernova remnant was discovered to be a hard X-ray (15 – 60 keV) source by a scintillation counter flown on a balloon launched from Palestine, Texas, USA."[7] This was likely the first balloon-based detection of X-rays from a discrete cosmic X-ray source.[8]

"The high-energy focusing telescope (HEFT) is a balloon-borne experiment to image astrophysical sources in the hard X-ray (20–100 keV) band.[9] Its maiden flight took place in May 2005 from Fort Sumner, New Mexico, USA. The angular resolution of HEFT is ~1.5'. Rather than using a grazing-angle X-ray telescope, HEFT makes use of a novel tungsten-silicon multilayer coatings to extend the reflectivity of nested grazing-incidence mirrors beyond 10 keV. HEFT has an energy resolution of 1.0 keV full width at half maximum at 60 keV. HEFT was launched for a 25-hour balloon flight in May 2005. The instrument performed within specification and observed [SN 1054] Tau X-1, the Crab Nebula."[7]

One of the recent balloon-borne experiments was called the High-resolution gamma-ray and hard X-ray spectrometer (HIREGS).[10] It was launched from McMurdo Station, Antarctica in December 1991, steady winds carried the balloon on a circumpolar flight lasting about two weeks.


BLAST is hanging from the launch vehicle in Esrange near Kiruna, Sweden before launch June 2005. Credit: Mtruch.
NASA's balloon-carried BLAST sub-millimeter telescope is hoisted into launch position on Dec. 25, 2012, at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Credit: NASA/Wallops Flight Facility.

The Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST) is a submillimeter telescope that hangs from a high altitude balloon. It has a 2 meter primary mirror that directs light into bolometer arrays operating at 250, 350, and 500 µm. BLAST's primary science goals are:[11]

  • Measure photometric redshifts, rest-frame [Far infrared] FIR luminosities and star formation rates of high-redshift starburst galaxies, thereby constraining the evolutionary history of those galaxies that produce the FIR/submillimeter background.
  • Measure cold pre-stellar sources associated with the earliest stages of star and planet formation.
  • Make high-resolution maps of interstellar medium diffuse galactic emission over a wide range of galactic latitudes.

High-altitude balloons and aircraft can get above [much] of the atmosphere. The BLAST experiment and SOFIA are two examples, respectively, although SOFIA can also handle near infrared observations.

At left above "NASA's balloon-carried BLAST sub-millimeter telescope is hoisted into launch position on Dec. 25, 2012, at McMurdo Station in Antarctica on a mission to peer into the cosmos."[12] The giant helium-filled balloon is slowly drifting about 36 km above Antarctica. It was "[l]aunched on Tuesday (Dec. 25) from the National Science Foundation's Long Duration Balloon (LDB) facility ... This is the fifth and final mission for BLAST, short for the Balloon-borne Large-Aperture Submillimeter Telescope. ... "BLAST found lots of so-called dark cores in our own Milky Way — dense clouds of cold dust that are supposed to be stars-in-the-making. Based on the number of dark cores, you would expect our galaxy to spawn dozens of new stars each year on average. Yet, the galactic star formation rate is only some four solar masses per year." So why is the stellar birth rate in our Milky Way so low? Astronomers can think of two ways in which a dense cloud of dust is prevented from further contracting into a star: turbulence in the dust, or the collapse-impeding effects of magnetic fields. On its new mission, BLAST should find out which process is to blame. ... [The 1800-kilogram] stratospheric telescope will observe selected star-forming regions in the constellations Vela and Lupus."[13]

Cygnus X-1[edit]

The X-ray emitter Cygnus X-1, in the constellation of Cygnus, is imaged by a balloon born telescope. Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center.{{free media}}

A balloon was launched for the High Energy Replicated Optics project on May 23, 2001, from Fort Sumner, New Mexico, USA, reaching an altitude of 39 km. Using a telescope containing unique X-ray mirrors, a team from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., has obtained the world's first focused high-energy X-ray images of any astronomical object, e.g., Cygnus X-1.

"This is the first step toward opening the high-energy, or 'hard,' X-ray spectrum for high sensitivity exploration."[14]

"The ability to collect focused hard X-ray images has the potential of allowing us to observe objects in the heavens which are 10 to 100 times fainter than those which can be detected with current instruments. This development gives us new eyes - enabling new understanding about our violent universe."[14]

"The [High Energy Replicated Optics] HERO team launched the experimental telescope on May 23, 2001, from Fort Sumner, N.M., using a 40 million cubic-foot (1.1 million cubic-meter) balloon that carried the payload to an altitude of 128,000 feet (39,000 meters). At this altitude, the telescope is above 99.7 percent of Earth's atmosphere, which absorbs X-rays and many other wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation."[14]

"An image of the Cygnus X-1 binary star system [on the right] is the second of the first two focused high-energy X-ray images of any astronomical object. The images were captured by a team from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center on May 23 using a telescope containing unique X-ray mirrors."[14]


It is discovered in an early balloon flight by experimenters in the 1960s that passive collimators or shields, made of materials such as lead, actually increase the undesired background rate, due to the intense showers of secondary particles and photons produced by the extremely high energy (GeV) particles characteristic of the space radiation environment.


The Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility operates and launches balloons from its remote site in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, USA. The Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) itself is located in Palestine, Texas, from which earlier balloon launches took place.


  1. High-altitude gliders or balloons can provide a stable platform for observations that is as good as any satellite at much lower cost.

See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Nancy Atkinson (9 January 2009). NASA Tests New Super-Thin High Altitude Balloon. Universe Today. Retrieved 2017-08-10.
  2. 2.0 2.1 S. W. Barwick, J. J. Beatty, A. Bhattacharyya, C. R. Bower, C. J. Chaput, S. Coutu, G. A. de Nolfo, J. Knapp, D. M. Lowder, S. McKee, D. Müller, J. A. Musser, S. L. Nutter, E. Schneider, S. P. Swordy, G. Tarlé, A. D. Tomasch and E. Torbet (June 20, 1997). "Measurements of the Cosmic-Ray Positron Fraction from 1 to 50 GeV". The Astrophysical Journal Letters 482 (2): L191-4. doi:10.1086/310706. http://iopscience.iop.org/1538-4357/482/2/L191. Retrieved 2012-07-13. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Figueiredo N, Villela T, Jayanthi UB, Wuensche CA, Neri JACF, Cesta RC (1990). "Gamma-ray observations of SN1987A". Rev Mex Astron Astrofis. 21: 459–62. 
  4. Terrence J. O'Neill, Alan D. Kerrick, Farid Ait-Ouamer, O. Tumay Tumer, Allen D. Zych, R. Stephen White (April 28, 1989). "Observations of nuclear reactors on satellites with a balloon-borne gamma-ray telescope". Science 244 (4903): 451-4. doi:10.1126/science.244.4903.451. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/244/4903/451.short. Retrieved 2012-06-10. 
  5. R. M. Millan, R. P. Lin, D. M. Smith, K. R. Lorentzen, and M. P. McCarthy (December 2002). "X-ray observations of MeV electron precipitation with a balloon-borne germanium spectrometer". Geophysical Research Letters 29 (24): 2194-7. doi:10.1029/2002GL015922. http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2002.../2002GL015922.shtml. Retrieved 2011-10-26. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Michael McCarthy (January 2000). M eV A uroral X -ray I maging and S pectroscopy 1999/2000 Long Duration Balloon Flight Around the South Pole. NASA. Retrieved 2018-05-28.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Marshallsumter (April 15, 2013). X-ray astronomy. San Francisco, California: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved 2013-05-11.
  8. S. A. Drake. A Brief History of High-Energy Astronomy: 1960–1964.
  9. F. A. Harrison, Steven Boggs, Aleksey E. Bolotnikov, Finn E. Christensen, Walter R. Cook III, William W. Craig, Charles J. Hailey, Mario A. Jimenez-Garate, Peter H. Mao (2000). Joachim E. Truemper, Bernd Aschenbach. ed. "Development of the High-Energy Focusing Telescope (HEFT) balloon experiment". Proc SPIE. X-Ray Optics, Instruments, and Missions III 4012: 693. doi:10.1117/12.391608. 
  10. HIREGS.
  11. BLAST Public Webpage
  12. SPACE.com (December 25, 2012). NASA Launches Telescope-Toting Balloon from Antarctica on Christmas. SPACE.com. Retrieved 2012-12-26.
  13. Govert Schilling (December 26, 2012). NASA Launches Telescope-Toting Balloon from Antarctica on Christmas. McMurdo Station: SPACE.com. Retrieved 2012-12-26.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Brian Ramsey (9 June 2001). New X-ray window to the universe is opened. Space Flight Now. Retrieved 2017-08-10.

External links[edit]

{{Radiation astronomy resources}}{{Principles of radiation astronomy}}