Sections

Using Balloons to Observe the Universe

Using Balloons to Observe the Universe

06.09.2017
The PILOT scientific gondola, carrying a telescope designed by several teams of French researchers, was launched from the base at Alice Springs, Australia, on April 16, 2017.
Cheaper than satellites, stratospheric balloons can carry telescopes up to altitudes of 40,000 meters, enabling researchers to observe the Universe. They recently completed a mission over Australia to study interstellar dust in our Galaxy, as part of the PILOT Experiment.

With some of the advantages of satellites, stratospheric balloons are considerably cheaper, and can be used to test tomorrow's space technologies in virtually real conditions. 56 years after the first flight over France, from a site near Trappes (Paris region) in October 1961, these balloons continue to play a key role in scientific research, especially in France, one of the countries most involved in their use. The year 2017 alone will have seen three campaigns with strong French participation, in Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Near-space conditions

"Several disciplines would find it difficult to do without this simple way of temporarily locating instruments at altitudes ranging from 20 to 40 kilometers, unattainable by aircraft," explains Martin Giard, deputy scientific director in charge of space affairs at the CNRS National Institute for Earth Sciences and Astronomy. 

Ground-based telescopes cannot observe the sky at certain wavelengths.

Without balloons, atmospheric scientists would be unable to take in situ measurements of various stratospheric phenomena related to pollution, the climate, the weather, etc, while astrophysicists would no longer have access to an environment that is ideal for observing the cosmos in near-space conditions. The Earth’s atmosphere blocks out part of the electromagnetic radiation from space, preventing ground-based telescopes from observing the sky at certain wavelengths.

Placing detectors at high altitude in an environment where the air is extremely thin thus provides scientists with a valuable means of obtaining images in these missing parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is far cheaper and easier to launch a balloon than a satellite, and the instruments it carries in its gondola can frequently be recovered. As a result, this method can be used to perform full-scale trials of devices that will later be placed in orbit, since a space mission makes it possible to gather data over longer periods of time. 

Studying interstellar dust

After an initial balloon flight in Canada in September 2015, the PILOT campaign, whose second flight ended on 17 April 2017 several hundred kilometers from Alice Springs in central Australia, illustrates these advantages perfectly. Designed by the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP),1 the IAS,2 the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), and the CNES,3 the experimental instrument comprises a telescope whose detector is composed of an array of 2,048 bolometers4 cooled to a temperature of 300 millikelvins. "Its purpose is to measure, in certain parts of the southern sky, a phenomenon known as 'polarized emission from interstellar dust'," explains François Boulanger, senior researcher at the IAS in Orsay. Detecting this signal, which is located in the far-infrared, is impossible from the ground, at the wavelengths where it is strongest. And yet this is one of the few ways in which astrophysicists can map the magnetic field in the Milky Way's interstellar clouds, and thus study the role it plays in star formation. This is also of interest to cosmologists, insofar as the light emission of galactic origin is superimposed on the cosmic microwave background, making it harder to find the much- awaited primordial gravitational waves that may provide conclusive evidence for the inflation theory. 

Preparing the PILOT gondola at the Alice Springs space ballooning facility, Australia. Dedicated to studying the origins of the Universe, this cutting-edge instrument is designed to measure polarized emission from interstellar dust.
Preparing the PILOT gondola at the Alice Springs space ballooning facility, Australia. Dedicated to studying the origins of the Universe, this cutting-edge instrument is designed to measure polarized emission from interstellar dust.

An 800,000 m3 giant filled with helium

After a month and a half preparing the balloon and waiting for the stratospheric winds to reverse direction, PILOT was launched on April 16, 2017 at 5:30am. Carried aloft by the CNES's largest open stratospheric balloon, an 800,000 m3 giant filled with helium and able to reach a diameter of 150 meters, the one-ton pointed gondola transporting the experimental instruments rapidly rose to an altitude of over 40 kilometers. It enabled the team to collect data for 33 hours and 40 minutes before it began its descent, making a gentle landing in an inhospitable desert region several hundreds of kilometers from the launch site. It was recovered the next day, completely intact, by helicopter. 
 
Fully satisfied with the outcome of their Australian venture, the PILOT team are planning a third flight, which could launch from a base near Kiruna, Sweden, in 2018. They have also tabled a proposal for the development of a new balloon-borne telescope dubbed 'B-SIDE'. "This type of experiment—whose main benefit is that it enables us to search the sky for polarized emission at wavelengths that have never been used before—is both cheap and rapid to develop," explains Jean-Philippe Bernard, Principal Investigator for PILOT and senior researcher at the IRAP. 
 

Second flight of the PILOT mission: the stratospheric balloon soon ready to launch on April 16 from Alice Springs, in the Australian Outback. After a flight lasting 33 hours 40 minutes and a record altitude of 40 kilometers, the gondola landed the next day and was recovered intact.
Second flight of the PILOT mission: the stratospheric balloon soon ready to launch on April 16 from Alice Springs, in the Australian Outback. After a flight lasting 33 hours 40 minutes and a record altitude of 40 kilometers, the gondola landed the next day and was recovered intact.

Detecting cosmic rays

The PILOT researchers are not the only ones to swear by stratospheric balloons. On April 25, 2017 at 10:30am, just a few days after the Australian flight, a US super pressure balloon of 532,000 m3 was launched from Wanaka airport, New Zealand, as part of the EUSO-SPB international experimental project, in which France is taking part,5 aimed at detecting ultra-high energy cosmic rays. It is due to carry a 2495-kilogram payload for a period of a hundred days.
 

During the eight-hour flight, the team hopes to obtain images of more than 200 galaxies.

In addition, September 2017 will see the first 'FIREBall 2' campaign get underway at Fort Sumner in New Mexico (US). Led by CalTech, Columbia University and the LAM,6 with the CNES in charge of developing the pointed gondola, the project aims to study gas exchange between the intergalactic medium and galaxies. Flows of gas entering galaxies provide the raw material required for star formation. But gas can also be ejected from galaxies before returning there, in some cases. 

Trials on the FIREBall instrument's spectrograph, at the French space agency, CNES, in Toulouse (southwestern France). FIREBall is a French-US experiment designed to detect the very faint emission from intergalactic matter. The telescope will be launched beneath a stratospheric balloon in September 2017, from New Mexico (US).
Trials on the FIREBall instrument's spectrograph, at the French space agency, CNES, in Toulouse (southwestern France). FIREBall is a French-US experiment designed to detect the very faint emission from intergalactic matter. The telescope will be launched beneath a stratospheric balloon in September 2017, from New Mexico (US).

The purpose of FIREBall 2 is to "characterize this cycle and its connections with star formation," explains Bruno Milliard, from the LAM. Since ground-based observation of intergalactic gas in the ultraviolet is impossible, the team has designed a multi-object spectrograph that can operate from one of NASA's million-cubic meter stratospheric balloons. During the eight-hour flight, they are hoping to obtain images of more than 200 galaxies, yet again demonstrating the irreplaceable role of balloons in cutting-edge scientific research aimed at shedding fresh light on our Universe.

Footnotes
  • 1. CNRS / Université de Toulouse III Paul Sabatier.
  • 2. Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale (CNRS / Université Paris-Sud 11).
  • 3. Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, the French National Space Agency.
  • 4. A bolometer is a device that detects and measures electromagnetic radiation by the heat that this induces.
  • 5. French organizations taking part in the project: IRAP; Laboratoire Astroparticule et Cosmologie (CNRS / CEA / Université Paris-Diderot / Observatoire de Paris); Laboratoire de l’Accélérateur Linéaire (CNRS / Université Paris-Sud); CNES (supplier of the pointed gondola).
  • 6. Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille (CNRS / Aix-Marseille Université).

Comments

2 comments

My name is Bryan Johnson am from South America I want the general public, to know how this great man called Doctor Disu cure me and my sister from GENITAL HERPES with the herbal medicine gotten from him, And i have confirmed that he cures other diseases too like STD, SYPHILIS, CANCER, PARKINSON DISEASE, DIABETES, Herpes, Mine was worst I have suffered from Human papillama virus HPV) for 3years he cure me too!!! herbal medication is a great medication. he have a medicine that is 100% assured to cure any type of disease and you don't need to spend so much money anymore. I want you to contact Doctor Disu via Email:africanherbalcure@gmail.com My family is now a brand new one, so stop your worries and go get your herbal medicine now to get your family free from deadly disease. Once again thanks to Doctor Disu.

I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a year ago at the age of 68. For several months I had noticed tremors in my right hand and the shaking of my right foot when I was sitting. My normally beautiful cursive writing was now small cramped printing. And I tended to lose my balance. Neurologist had me walk down the hall and said I didn't swing my right arm. I had never noticed! I was in denial for a while as there is no history in my family of parents and five older siblings, but now accept I had classic symptoms. I was taking pramipexole (Sifrol), carbidopa/levodopa and Biperiden, 2 mg. and started physical therapy to strengthen muscles. nothing was really working to help my condition.I went off the Siferol (with the doctor’s knowledge) and started on parkinson’s herbal formula i ordered from Health Herbal Clinic, my symptoms totally declined over a 3 weeks use of the Parkinsons disease natural herbal formula. i am now almost 70 and doing very well, the disease is totally reversed!! Visit there website www. healthherbalclinic. net
To comment on this article,
Log in, join the CNRS News community