Building 45 payloads for balloon mission

May 30, 2012 By Karen C. Fox
Several BARREL payloads are built all at the same time. Credit: Robyn Millan

Robyn Millan's lab is a little crowded at the moment. It overflows with electronics. And foam. And parachutes and aluminum frames and drills. Based at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, Millan and her students are busy building 45 payloads -- each destined for a trip on a balloon around Antarctica as part of a NASA mission called BARREL, or the Balloon Array for RBSP Relativistic Electron Losses.

"We've been drilling a lot of holes," says Millan. "My students figured out that we have almost 10,000 holes to drill."

It's all part of a plan to launch a series of instruments that will work hand in hand with NASA's Space Probes (RBSP) mission, two due to launch in August 2012 to study a mysterious part of Earth's magnetic environs called the Van Allen radiation belts. The belts are made up of two regions, each one a gigantic donut of protons and electrons that surround Earth.

A BARREL payload complete with solar panels sits in the sun for a full system-test. Credit: Brett Anderson

"We're both looking at the loss of particles from the radiation belts," says Millan. "RBSP sits in space near the equatorial plane and looks at the particles along there. These particles come into our atmosphere – following magnetic field lines to their base at the Poles – and produce X-rays. BARREL measures those X-rays. Together we can combine measurements of the same set of particles."

The charged within the radiation belts can damage sensitive electronics on spacecraft like those used for global positioning systems and communications, and can be harmful to humans in space. (The electrons don't make it all the way to Earth, so pose no danger to those of us on the ground.) Experiments like BARREL and RBSP will help us understand the processes and mitigate those risks.

One test for the 50-pound payload is to make sure it will balance when hanging from the balloon. The flight train that supports the payload consists of an in-line parachute and a “ladder” made of rope and PVC pipe for stability. Credit: Brett Anderson

In the meantime, Millan's team drills holes, builds payloads and, most importantly, tests the hardware. They will launch 20 instruments in January 2013 that must be shipped to Antarctica beginning in August. Many of the components are built elsewhere – University of California in Berkeley, University of California in Santa Cruz and University of Washington in Seattle – and are then shipped to Dartmouth. There, Millan's lab assembles the payloads and tests them both to make sure they work and that they will withstand the rigors of their trip.

"I'm proud of how much work my students did improving the mechanical design to make sure it would be faster to build," says Millan. "Every few minutes count. If some building process takes three minutes, that doesn't sound like much, but multiply that by 45 and little things become significant. Now our process is streamlined. It's almost like Legos – all the pieces just fit together."

BARREL is a balloon-based Mission of Opportunity to augment the measurements of NASA's RBSP spacecraft. BARREL seeks to measure the precipitation of relativistic electrons from the radiation belts during two multi-balloon campaigns, operated in the southern hemispheres.

Explore further: Computer model shows moon's core surrounded by liquid and it's caused by Earth's gravity

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Launching balloons in Antarctica

Feb 23, 2011

They nicknamed it the "Little Balloon That Could." Launched in December of 2010 from McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the research balloon was a test run and it bobbed lower every day like it had some kind of ...

THEMIS satellite sees a great electron escape

Jan 31, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- When scientists discovered two great swaths of radiation encircling Earth in the 1950s, it spawned over-the-top fears about "killer electrons" and space radiation effects on Earthlings. The ...

Twin space probe design phase begins

Apr 21, 2008

The U.S. space agency said design has started on its radiation storm probes -- twin spacecraft that will be launched into the Earth's radiation belts.

Scientific balloon launches from Antarctica

Dec 22, 2010

NASA and the National Science Foundation launched a scientific balloon on Monday, Dec. 20, to study the effects of cosmic rays on Earth. It was the first of five scientific balloons scheduled to launch from ...

Recommended for you

Titan offers clues to atmospheres of hazy planets

1 hour ago

When hazy planets pass across the face of their star, a curious thing happens. Astronomers are not able to see any changes in the range of light coming from the star and planet system.

Having fun with the equation of time

2 hours ago

If you're like us, you might've looked at a globe of the Earth in elementary school long before the days of Google Earth and wondered just what that strange looking figure eight thing on its side was.

The source of the sky's X-ray glow

21 hours ago

In findings that help astrophysicists understand our corner of the galaxy, an international research team has shown that the soft X-ray glow blanketing the sky comes from both inside and outside the solar system.

User comments : 0