Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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  LDB Balloon launch 21 Dec 2001
LDB balloon ready for liftoff, December 2001. Click to enlarge.

Balloon Over Antarctica

Round and round she goes.
by Paul Doherty

December 26, 2001

Around McMurdo station the people who operate the helium balloons that lift scientific payloads high into the stratosphere are known as "balloonatics." Every one of them I met was filled with passion and enthusiasm for balloons or science or both.

I met Robert Redinger in the lounge of our hotel in Christchurch. Within seconds I discovered that he was a balloonist/meteorologist charged with determining whether the winds were favorable for a launch of the Long Duration Balloon, LDB,with its payload named TIGER. During the Antarctic summer the winds high in the stratosphere at 120,000 ft. (40,000 m) blow in a circular path completely around the south pole. They make a polar vortex. Launch a balloon into these winds and it will circle the pole in two weeks and return to its launch point (within a few hundred miles.) Robert's job was to determine when the vortex winds had begun to blow and also to predict when the surface winds would be light and stable enough to launch the balloon. He predicted the right combination of winds would occur on December 21, 2001 and so the balloon was inflated with helium and launched carrying its payload. Robert is passionate about ballooning. He owns two hot air balloons himself including an amazing balloon with a mustache and eye patch named "The Pirate." He'll show you pictures of these balloons as proudly as a grandparent shows pictures of the grandchildren. Talk to Richard and you'll want to fly balloons yourself.

Hanging the TIGER payload. Click to enlarge.

Dr. Eric Christian studies the origin of puzzling particles known as cosmic rays. I met him at breakfast in the McMurdo galley one morning. He told me how he had wanted to work for NASA since he was a child and now he had his dream job. He said that this was as remote a spot as he could ever visit without becoming an astronaut. Eric is as enthusiastic scientist, he worked long days on the TIGER (Trans Iron Galactic Element Recorder) then came back to learn as much as he could about Antarctica, going on tours to the ice caves and historic huts then he returned to the office to answer e-mail questions from high school science students in Schenectady. Eric is the model of a complete scientist, doing cutting edge research, learning all the time, and sharing his discoveries with others.

  tractor pulling balloon
View movie (1.3 MB) of balloon launch (Get QuickTime)

When cosmic rays made of high energy nuclei crash in to the instruments aboard TIGER their energy is converted into light which is captured by photomultiplier tubes. These tubes convert photons of light into pulses of electrons. The size and timing of the electron signals are relayed via satellite back to the United States where Eric can study them. Eric wants to know how the cosmic rays are accelerated to near the speed of light. The TIGER experiment will provide important clues for his search.



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