Press Release

Antarctic Test flight preps way for hunt for ‘killer’ particles

By SpaceRef Editor
February 19, 2004
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By Brien Barnett
Sun staff

A test to check instruments that will be used to detect strange phenomena
in the magnetosphere was launched via balloon last week.

The balloon climbed to 15,200 meter and the 31 kg MINIS payload collected
and transmitted data back to a lab in Berkeley, Calif., in the first
few hours after launch. However, the balloon descended rapidly and unexpectedly
landed on Mount Discovery, where it lost some gear. The balloon eventually
dragged its way to the top of the mountain and traveled to about 900
km west of McMurdo where it finally landed.

MINIS, an empty acronym pun based on a previous project called MAXIS,
had enough battery life to last eight days, but project team member
Edgar Bering III said the instrument was damaged as it was pulled up
and off the mountain by the balloon.

Bering suspects the post-launch setbacks were caused by a leak in the
small long duration balloon and not the scientific gear it was carrying.
Bering said he thinks the instruments proved they worked, though the
data will have to be analyzed.

The lessons gleaned from the flight will be incorporated in a series
of planned flights in the next year or so that will hunt for high energy
ìkillerî particles cycled by the earthís magnetosphere, the feature
in outer space created by the earthís magnetic qualities.

Bering said the particles are interesting because they have been detected
by scientific missions only a few times, but indicate a major disturbance
in the magnetosphere capable of killing satellites and creating disruptions
to electrical systems on the surface.

ìWe needed to fly a detector that had a high enough energy range,î
said John Sample, a doctoral candidate who is working on the project.

The primary goal of the $350,000 project is to launch a series of four
balloons in a row from the South African Antarctic base, SANAE, to attempt
to detect the high-energy particle shower.

The researchers want to determine whether it is a one-time occurrence,
like someone turning a faucet on and off, or ifs there is a constant
stream of particles in a very narrow area.

Also, they would like to learn more about the properties of the particles.
The information they obtain could help power companies guard their extensive
grids and space agencies protect satellites and astronauts.

National Science Foundation funded research in
this story: David Smith, University of California Berkeley,

SpaceRef staff editor.