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Slender hoses, blown into arcs by the wind, partially fill the balloon with helium before launch. A large portion of the balloon is left unfilled so it can expand as it ascends into the stratosphere, where air pressure is considerably lower.
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Photo by Carlye Calvin, ©UCAR.

Solar Telescope Reaches 120,000 Feet on Jumbo-Jet-Sized Balloon
News story originally written on October 24, 2007

BOULDER—In an important test flight, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and their partners this month successfully launched a solar telescope to a height of 120,000 feet. The telescope was taken up by a balloon larger than a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. The test clears the way for longer balloon flights over the poles of the Earth starting in 2009. These flights will aim to take pictures of the Sun's surface.

"This unique research project will enable us to view features of the Sun that we've never seen before," says Michael Knölker, director of NCAR's High Altitude Observatory. "We hope to unlock important mysteries about the Sun's magnetic field structures, which at times can cause electromagnetic storms in our upper atmosphere and may have an impact on Earth's climate."

The project is known as Sunrise and involves many partners. Funding for NCAR's work on the project comes from NASA and from the National Science Foundation.

The balloon carrying its science instruments, was launched successfully on the morning of October 3 from the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in New Mexico. It flew for about 10 hours, capturing images of the solar surface. The instruments then separated from the balloon and came down with a parachute, landing safely in a field outside Dalhart, Texas.

Observing the midnight Sun

This successful flight means that the Sunrise balloon can move onto longer flights. Its next flight will be over the Arctic in the summer of 2009, launching from Kiruna, Sweden. It will capture pictures of the Sun for a period of several days to as long as two weeks.

The ultimate goal of the Sunrise project is to look into the structure of the Sun's magnetic fields. The fields fuel solar activity, including storms that can hit Earth's outer atmosphere and affect satellites and power grids on Earth. The fields also cause changes in solar radiation, which may cause long-term changes in Earth's climate.

A sharp focus from a twisting balloon

The Sunrise project presented engineers with many challenges. The balloon is designed to carry 6,000 pounds of equipment, including a 1-meter (39-inch) solar telescope, additional observing instruments, communications equipment, computers and disk drives, solar panels, and roll cages and crush pads to protect the payload on landing. The equipment must be able to handle big changes in temperature. It is also tricky to figure out a way to keep the instruments focusing on one small area of the Sun even if the balloon is moving or shifting. Talk about a full day's work!

"This is a very economical way of rising above the atmosphere and capturing images that cannot be captured from Earth," Knölker says. "What we are doing is laying the groundwork for the next generation of space flights."

Last modified March 10, 2008 by Jennifer Bergman.

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