Balloon fleet to Study Van Allen belts - 12/05/2007
WASHINGTON, USA.- A new mission called the Balloon Array for Radiation-belt Relativistic Electron Losses, or BARREL was presented this month by NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The project will use more than 40 high altitude balloons to return new scientific insights about Earth's Van Allen Belts a ring of energetic charged particles that encircle Earth and are constrained by Earth's magnetic field. These belts were discovered in 1958 and their radiation can be hazardous to astronauts, orbiting satellites and aircraft flying in high altitude polar routes.
The mission (funded by NASA with $9.3 million) will be carried out by the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College in Hanover, (NH) under the guidance of Robyn Millan as Principal Investigator. BARREL will fly in 2013 and 2014 in conjunction with NASA's Radiation Belt Storm Probes satellites, due to launch in 2011. The initiative will start with two test launches from ESRANGE in July 2008 under supervision of NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility staff. The final goal of the project is to provide answers to how and where the Van Allen Belts, periodically drain into Earth's upper atmosphere.
The BARREL balloons will be launched from the South African and British Antarctic research stations and once in the air they will expand to roughly the size of a large blimp when they reach the near-space research altitude. A single balloon of this type will hover at an altitude of approximately 21 miles for as long as two weeks. By carefully timing the launch of a series of balloons, about one per day, Millan and her group hope to form a ring of balloons encircling the South Pole to study the total influx of radiation from the belts into Earth's atmosphere. The entire procedure will be repeated at the same location the next year.
"...This experiment will be the first of its kind in establishing a web of balloon-borne sensors working hand-in-hand with a satellite mission..." said Dick Fisher, director of NASA's Heliophysics Division, Washington. "...In addition to the groundbreaking science that BARREL will provide, this kind of use of NASA's suborbital program is vital for training the next generation of scientists in a wide range of areas...". The payload will include a NaI Scintillator as main X-Ray detector along with a magnetometer, also will count with solar panels to obtain electrical power and an Iridium based telemetry link for data downloading. The total weight of the apparatus will be near 18 kg.
Darmouth is not a newcomer in the scientific ballooning arena. They had succesfully developed in the past several balloon-borne projects mainly from the Canadian Arctic and Antarctica and as a matter of fact the BARREL payload design is based on other balloon-borne project called MINIS launched by the same team in 2005.
More information on these projects and BARREL itself can be found at: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~rmillan/