Footballfield-sized balloon studying solar flares over Antarctica

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New York, Jan 20 (IANS) Over the clear and calm skies over Antarctica, a large, helium-filled and footballfield-sized scientific balloon has started studying high-energy radiation released by solar flares emitted by the sun.

On January 18, the Gamma-Ray Imager/Polarimeter for Solar flares (GRIPS) balloon team sent their instrument soaring towards the stratosphere above Antarctica, suspended underneath a NASA-funded balloon that is studying extremely high-energy radiation released by solar flares.

The balloon will fly for anywhere from 14 to 55 days, carried around the continent by a circular wind pattern that develops over Antarctica each summer.

“GRIPS sees this emission three times more sharply than any previous instrument,” said Albert Shih, project scientist for the GRIPS mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“We will be able to pinpoint more precisely the times and locations that produce gamma rays,” he added.

GRIPS is led by the researchers at University of California at Berkeley. The programme is executed from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas.

The Columbia team has launched more than 1,700 scientific balloons in over 35 years of operation.

Antarctic summer is the ideal time for scientific balloon launches, because of the relatively calm skies and — for several weeks — 24/7 sunlight, which provides power and uninterrupted data collection for solar-focused instruments like GRIPS.

The GRIPS team began arriving at McMurdo station in Antarctica in late October 2015.

Throughout November, December and early January, the team assembled and tested GRIPS as they waited for the right conditions to launch their balloon.

Scientific balloons are a low-cost way to access Earth’s upper atmosphere up to the edge of space, allowing scientists to make measurements that are impossible from the ground.

Solar flares are created by an explosive realignment of magnetic fields, known generally as magnetic reconnection.

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