Science Floats

What a satellite can do, balloons can do cheaper.

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TWO IN THE MORNING IN EASTERN New Mexico. About 20 people have gathered at an abandoned World War II bomber training base. There's nothing here except leftover hangars. Grass grows through cracks in the pavement. Visitors are warned of rattlesnakes. On the steel siding of one building, the letters "NASA" have been painted. The building serves as a weather station and payload preparation facility for scientists who send instruments to the very top of the atmosphere by hitching them to giant balloons.

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On this warm, spring night, an X-ray telescope is ready for flight. A windsock dangles vertically, showing what looks like dead calm, but since the balloon with its payload will stand nearly 900 feet tall when released—by comparison, the Washington Monument is only 565 feet—surface calm is just one of the weather conditions necessary for a launch.

A technician releases a small rubber test balloon, some two feet across an inflated with helium. It rises rapidly on a cord, like a fish pulling a line, and reaches an altitude of a thousand feet, at which point it pulls its tether to a noticeable angle. The "piball," or pilot balloon, is showing winds aloft. A second piball, tracked with a theodolite—a small telescope linked to a computer—reports winds up there as high as 35 mph. Launch director Erich Klein cancels the attempt, and the small group disperses.

This is par for the course of NASA's balloon people, the meteorologists and launch crews of the National Scientific Balloon Facility, a government-owned, contractor-operated organization that launches approximately 20 science payloads a year from here in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico, as well as from its headquarters in Palestine, Texas, and launch pads in Canada, Australia, and Antarctica. "I've seen it take a month to get off one balloon," grumbles astronomer Jonathan Grindlay of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts. Grindlay, this morning's launch customer, needs to get his telescope to 128,000 feet in order for it to detect X-rays in the upper atmosphere. He is testing the effectiveness of two X-ray instruments.

Klein and his crew take the waiting in stride. "You learn to be patient," he says. "It does get frustrating. Sometimes we wait weeks. But eventually, a week can turn everything around."

Launching balloons has grown more demanding over the years. Much of the early work took place at Palestine, but around 1990 there was a significant expansion. New sites for launches were developed in Australia, Antarctica, and Canada, and the launch crews had to be willing to travel to those places.

"We went through a difficult transition," NSBF site manager Danny Ball recalls. "It took several years for guys to say, 'I just can't do this anymore.' So when one of those guys would leave, we'd bring in another person and explain very carefully that part of his job would be to go on the road three to five months out of the year.

"It took several years to get the crew we've got today," he continues. "People who don't mind the travel, who are really interested in the work."

At any of the locations, the launch crews are constantly at the mercy of the weather. Senior meteorologist Glenn Rosenberger, who has been helping launch balloons for almost 50 years, uses five different mathematical models to predict the weather, and he says they sometimes give him five different answers. In that case, he says, he consults with his colleagues, who may disagree with his conclusions. In the end Rosenberger relies on his many years of experience to decide which prediction to trust.


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