Out on the Ross Ice shelf, about a 1/2 hour drive from McMurdo station, is the Long Duration Balloon (LDB) facility, where scientists, engineers, grad students and support staff are working on two separate balloon projects which will be launched in December, 2015. The balloons will carry telescopes with payloads of about 10,000 pounds, and will rise to an elevation of over 24 miles into the stratosphere. At this elevation the balloons will be in near space, above about 99 percent of the atmosphere, giving excellent seeing for the telescopes, which will be looking at the milky way, and at the sun. Why a balloon and not launch by rocket into outer space? Cost. It’s about 1/10 of the cost to bring a large heavy payload into near space on a balloon. The balloons are very large, about 1500 ft tall. The teams are waiting for the circumpolar vortex to stabilize for launch. These upper level winds will allow the balloon to make a trip around the circumference of Antarctica, returning the balloon to the launch site in about two weeks, where either a second trip around Antarctica will be made, or the payload and the balloon will be retrieved.
Chris Walker is the PI (Primary Investigator) for the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory (STO). Their telescope, which resembles a small version of the Hubble Telescope, will survey a section of the milky way (our galaxy) in very high resolution with a 0.8 meter optical telescope looking at interstellar star forming clouds containing carbon and nitrogen.
The other project is called Gamma Ray Imager/Polarimeter for Solar flares (GRIPS), and will be looking directly at the sun in the gamma ray part of the spectrum. Albert Shih from NASA Goddard and Nicole Duncan, a grad student from UC Berkley both gave me tours of the telescope and how it works in terms I could understand.
But I won’t try to explain the science, I recommend checking out their websites if you are interested in further information about these projects.
STO website http://soral.as.arizona.edu/STO/Welcome.html
GRIPS Website http://grips.ssl.berkeley.edu/