Slowly rising from the Northwest region of Manitoba,
Canada, near a small gold-mining town called Lynn Lake, a
massive NASA balloon began a journey August 25 that took it
to the fringes of space. Silently drifting in the rarefied
upper edges of our atmosphere, the scientific balloon reached
a peak altitude of 161,000 feet (49 kilometers), and with a
volume of 60 million cubic feet (1.7 million cubic meters),
was the largest balloon ever launched successfully.

The balloon carried a solar and heliosphere experiment called
Low Energy Electrons (LEE), weighing 1,500 pounds (690 kg),
that was provided by Dr. Paul Evenson of the University of
Delaware, Newark.

“Aside from our excitement and the fact that this balloon
established a new record for balloon volume (50 percent
greater than NASA’s standard balloon designs), this flight
should help establish a new platform for science such as
ultra-violet and x-ray astronomy,” said Steve Smith, chief of
NASA’s Balloon Program Office at Goddard Space Flight
Center’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va.

NASA’s scientific balloons are constructed of very thin
polyethylene material about the same thickness as an ordinary
sandwich wrap. NASA’s largest standard balloon is
approximately 40 million cubic feet (1.13 million cubic
meters) and reaches an altitude of approximately 130,000 feet
(39.6 kilometers). The system includes a balloon, a parachute
and a payload that carries instruments necessary to conduct
scientific experiments.

“In addition to the great science Dr. Evenson is doing, this
is a demonstration that balloons can reach extreme altitudes
with relatively heavy payloads,” said Danny Ball, Site
Manager, National Scientific Balloon Facility, Palestine,
Texas. “We hope this will lead to new interest from other
science disciplines needing very high altitudes.”

This flight was the sixth in a series of balloon observations
of cosmic electrons that have used the LEE and the Anti-
Electron Sub Orbital Payload (AESOP) instrument provided by
Dr. John Clem, also from the University of Delaware’s Bartol
Research Institute.

Both instruments flew from Lynn Lake, on Aug. 13, 2002, on a
40 million cubic foot balloon that reached an altitude of
134,000 feet (41 kilometers). The total flight time was 23
hours, 14 minutes.

Once the experiment was complete, a radio command was sent
from a ground station to separate the experiment from the
balloon. The command created a tear in the balloon material
permitting it to fall to Earth. A parachute floated the
experiment payload back to the ground. Science team members
were taken to the landing site for recovery of data tapes
within two hours of impact.

The LEE instrument was refurbished and launched again on Aug.
25, 2002, on the 60 million cubic foot balloon.

The LEE and AESOP instruments were flown in 1997, 1998, 1999
and 2000. Roughly 120 hours of data have been collected
during the previous flights. All of the launches have been
from Lynn Lake, which is 650 miles (1,000 kilometers) from
Manitoba. Although originally funded by NASA, the National
Science Foundation (NSF) currently funds research activities
using the AESOP experiment. The LEE instrument was originally
developed and flown by NSF and later flown by NASA.

The Wallops Flight Facility manages NASA’s Scientific Balloon
Program for the Office of Space Science, Washington. Launch
operations are conducted by the National Scientific Balloon
Facility, which is managed for NASA by the Physical Sciences
Laboratory of New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. Raven
Industries, Inc., Sioux Falls, S.D., designs and manufactures
NASA’s scientific balloons. The balloon for this launch was
built in their plant in Sulphur Springs, Texas.

For more information on NASA’s Scientific Balloon Program

  • Earlier stories, status reports, and press releases, SpaceRef