Mines-Built Observatory Ready To Launch Into Near Space

Image Credit: NASA

April 7, 2017 – A NASA space observatory assembled by students and faculty in the Physics Department at Colorado School of Mines could launch this weekend from Wanaka, New Zealand.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is preparing to use a super-pressure balloon to launch the pioneering telescope designed to detect ultra-high-energy cosmic rays as they interact with the Earth’s atmosphere.

Image Credit: NASA

The Extreme Universe Space Observatory Super Pressure Balloon will fly at 110,000 feet and make the first fluorescence observations of high-energy cosmic ray extensive air showers by looking down at Earth’s atmosphere from near space.

“We’re searching for the most energetic cosmic particles that we’ve ever observed,” said Angela V. Olinto, the Homer J. Livingston Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and principal investigator of the project, known as the Extreme Universe Space Observatory-Super Pressure Balloon. “The origin of these particles is a great mystery that we’d like to solve. Do they come from massive black holes at the center of galaxies? Tiny, fast-spinning stars? Or somewhere else?”

The extremely rare particles hit the atmosphere at a rate of only one per square kilometer per century. To assure that it will capture some of the particles, the telescope’s camera takes 400,000 images a second as it casts a wide view back toward the Earth.

Researchers hope the balloon will stay afloat for up to 100 days, thereby setting a record for an ultra-long duration flight. A similar balloon flew for almost 47 days in 2016. NASA estimates the balloon will circumnavigate the globe about the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes once every one to three weeks, depending on wind speeds in the stratosphere.

“High-energy cosmic rays have never been observed this way from space,” said Lawrence Wiencke, professor of physics at the Colorado School of Mines and co-leader of the project. “This mission to a sub-orbital altitude is a pioneering opportunity for us. Our international collaboration is very excited about this launch and about the new data that will be collected along the way.”

Students from the School of Mines assembled the gondola that holds the project’s instrumentation in Golden, Colorado. Mines’ engineering physics undergraduate student Rachel Gregg, PhD candidate Johannes Eser, postdoctoral researcher Simon Bacholle and former postdoc Lech Piotrowski were members of Wiencke’s team in New Zealand for testing and other preparations. Bacholle has returned to Mines to set up the US operations center for the balloon, while Piotrowski is setting up an operations center in Japan.

The launch will happen as soon as scientists and engineers have the right weather conditions. NASA describes the super-pressure balloon as the “most persnickety” of all the flight and launch vehicles it operates. Launching the balloon depends on just the right weather conditions. Along with monitoring ground and lower-level winds (up to 300 meters) on launch day, stratospheric wind conditions at 33.5 km (110,000 feet), where the balloon will travel, also need to be set-up favorably to support a launch attempt.

A launch window opened at 2 a.m. (New Zealand Time) Saturday, April 8 (Friday, April 7 in Eastern Time), but was postponed due to unacceptable stratospheric weather conditions for operations. A counter-clockwise flowing eddy has developed to the west of New Zealand’s North Island. Forecast models had the balloon launching from Wanaka and then traveling north bisecting the South Island before eventually getting caught up in the light and variable winds of the eddy. Ideally, an eastward trajectory after lift-off is preferred, though not necessarily required.

NASA will determine today whether or not Sunday’s weather will support a launch attempt.

Sixteen countries were involved with the design of the telescope. The U.S. team, funded by NASA, is led by UChicago, Colorado School of Mines, Marshall Space Flight Center, University of Alabama at Huntsville and Lehman College at the City University of New York.

For more information on EUSO-SPB, visit: