Antarctica
Balloons



That Monday turned out to be a pretty good day overall. As we had flown over Williams Field - the airport, we had noticed there was still quite a bit of ground fog. Tobias had been invited to come out for the Long Duration Balloon launch and take photos. After we got back to town he determined that the launch had still delayed, and could still make the afternoon launch. Since it was a quiet day, I tagged along.

We actually had two Long Duration Balloon (LDB) projects this year. The scientists were getting a bit worried. They had been scheduled to launch in early December. In order to launch these large balloons the weather (mostly the winds) has to be just right. They had been ready for a month now, and if they didn't get it launched by that Thursday (January 15th), they would have to postpone the flight for almost a year.

The long duration balloon flight takes off from McMurdo, and rises into the very upper parts of the atmosphere. Because of the winds in Antarctica, they are able to circle the continent, and have it land near the starting point (within a few hundred miles).

Their Web site has all the details of the project.

The first launch was the solar genesis project. The major payload on this balloon was a telescope that would be studying the sun. Part of the reason for doing this in Antarctica this time of year, the sun is visible 24 hours a day. Several other smaller projects also tag along.

Launch Site

Town, and the drive out (it's about 10 miles to Willy Field), was mostly clear, however the fog had come in from the west, and still covered the launch site. They were slightly delayed as they were still replacing a faulty valve when we arrived. The payload hangs from a modified crane like structure, mounted on a large delta type truck, until the balloon lifts off.

Payload

It looks a lot like a spacecraft, since it travels on the very edge of space, but it is much cheaper to fly it this way rather than launching it into space.

There were about a dozen spectators that were waiting to see the launch. One of the folks from our TV station was there to tape the launch, and as the fog would roll in and out, Eric would complain that no one was thinking of contrast. As they inflated the white balloon, it didn't always stand out very well against the white fog.

They had fixed the valve, and had started inflating the balloon. It had taken quite a while for the inflation to start, and then it takes quite a while for the balloon to be inflated with the proper amount of gas.

Inflation Starts

The inflation of the balloon creates a lot of noise as they feed the gas into the balloon. The gas is actually fed into the upper portion of the balloon through two filler tubes.

Inflation

The time had come, the balloon had been filled, and the NASA technicians had gotten ready, and of course we got our next delay. An LC-130 was inbound from a field camp (Byrd Surface Camp, with Bob Zook on his way back), and was within a hundred miles, so the balloon launch had to wait for it to land. That took another 20 very nervous minutes for the crew. They had almost a half million dollars of balloon, hardware, and helium ready to go and if the wind picked back up, they would loose most of it, as the balloon could not be reused, and the gas would be lost.

The weather cooperated, and the launch began in the fog.

Launch

A lot of the large white directly below the balloon is still part of the balloon, as it rises and the air temperature drops, the balloon continues to expand. Below that is the parachute. When the Balloon gets back around to the area of McMurdo, they will send a radio signal to it, that will separate the balloon from the parachute, and it will inflate as it falls back to the ground.

Launch

As the balloon rises, the truck is used to keep the payload in line, and prevent it from running into anything. Once the balloon is directly overhead and moving the correct direction the payload and balloon are released from the truck and start a very quick ascent.

Launch

As we drove back into town the Balloon was visible from the road continuing to rise. It was visible from town for almost a half day as it rises, and continues to expand.

Way up there

All in all a great day, Mount Terror in the Morning, and a afternoon watching a balloon.


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