The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) obtains data about the evolution of the universe and elements in the polar atmosphere using scientific balloons made of polyethylene film as thin as sandwich wrap, filled with the same helium used in party balloons. New developments in balloon materials, however, helped NASA launch a mission in Antarctica that kept a balloon, the Super Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder (or Super TIGER) aloft for more than 55 days, the longest flight on record for a balloon of its size.
Ultra long duration balloons (ULDBs), made of advanced composite materials sealed and pressurized into a pumpkin shape, can go longer—up to 100 days. The ULDB payload consists of a solar power system, radio receivers and transmitters, computers, batteries and other experimental systems that can weigh up to 8,000 pounds.
The Super TIGER, launched on December 8, 2012, from the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, was a huge balloon of 39 million cubic feet with a 6,000-pound payload to measure rare heavy elements among the high-energy cosmic rays bombarding earth from space. It landed February 2, carrying an instrument that detected 50 million cosmic rays. Super TIGER is one of three long-duration balloon experiments launching in the Antarctic this year. Nasa has set up a website where visitors can track the balloons in real time. Visit NASA’s Balloon Program Office for more information.