Montana State University

MSU research team launches balloons in Arctic

January 27, 2005 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Jacqueline Allen, David Klumpar and Kim Cochran (from left) faced Arctic conditions while launching helium balloons to measure x-rays in the upper atmosphere of the Earth. (Photo courtesy of Arctic team).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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A professor and two undergraduate students from Montana State University battled blizzards, 3 p.m. sunsets and windchills of minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit but finally succeeded in launching two giant helium balloons from the Arctic this month. The balloons -- along with four balloons launched from Antarctica -- carried equipment for measuring X-rays from the Earth's upper atmosphere.

"Our last balloon is in the air sailing out over the North Atlantic between Greenland and Iceland at about 112,000 feet," Dave Klumpar wrote this week in an e-mail from the Arctic. "It has been quite an experience for the two students."

Klumpar, director of the Space Science and Engineering Lab at MSU, headed for the Arctic in early January, joining Kim Cochran of Great Falls, a senior in geology, and Jacqueline Allen of Salt Lake City, a senior in electrical engineering. Working with them were researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Washington, Seattle.

"This project was the chance of a lifetime," said Allen who described a sun spot 11 times bigger than the Earth and spectacular Aurora Borealis. "First and foremost, it gave me the opportunity as an undergraduate student to work with professional physics researchers from two other universities who are known for their space physics research."

Cochran said, "To be able to go out into the world and see firsthand things you've only read in a book, it's quite an experience. Being here has also given me a sense of how I would like to conduct my own research when that time comes."

The researchers who plan to return Jan. 31 to MSU were based at the Northern Studies Centre at Churchhill, Manitoba on the west side of the Hudson Bay. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation to measure X-rays produced in the upper atmosphere when high-energy electrons are dumped out of the Earth's radiation belts. To gather information from both hemispheres, they coordinated balloon launches with scientists in Antarctica.

"The Arctic and the Antarctic provide the only locations on the face of the Earth where the phenomena under investigation takes place," Klumpar said.

Each balloon was designed to hold about 300,000 cubic feet of helium, carry 60 pounds of equipment, rise to about 120,000 feet and stay there about 36 hours, Klumpar said. After that, it would drift in a path that changed with the wind until it was brought down by radio commands. The researchers terminated the second Arctic balloon, for example, when it was east/southeast of Iceland. The team lost contact when the balloon fell into the Northern Atlantic.

The balloons won't be recovered, but the radio transmitters they carried sent information to the scientists via satellites, Klumpar said.

Antarctic conditions determined the January time table, Klumpar said. That meant the Arctic team launched its first balloon when the temperature was minus 47 F and the flight contractor froze his ear while walking 10 feet.

"Basically, there is only about an eight-week period during the Antarctic summer when weather conditions allow people and materials to get on and off the continent," Klumpar said. "Our Antarctic colleagues departed from Cape Town, South Africa for the two-week boat ride to the South African National Antarctic Expedition IV Station. The boat goes down once a year (in December) and comes back once a year (in February)."

The Arctic team, in contrast, was able to fly, then drive, to its destination.

"The weather is always an issue in a multifacted campaign like this, but under the circumstances, it didn't prevent the campaign from being completed," Klumpar said.

As the MSU team prepared to return to Montana, Klumpar said three of the Antarctic balloons were still aloft and sending information.

"Because they are in the Antarctic summer where they do not experience sunset, they are able to stay up much longer," Klumpar said. "Our northern hemisphere balloons went through night-day cycles which tend to cause them to lose helium and come down to lower altitudes."

The researchers will analyze and interpret their results in the next year or two, then present their findings and publish their results, Klumpar said.

Evelyn Boswel, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu