NASA to fly balloon flotilla to study high-altitude radiation impact

NASA said today it will use a flotilla of 40 high altitude balloons to study radiation’s impact on astronauts, orbiting satellites and aircraft flying in high altitude polar routes. 

The space agency has awarded $9.3 million to Dartmouth College of Hanover, N.H., for the study.  NASA said by using the balloons, the radiation research can be carried out at a fraction of the cost of using an orbiting satellite. 

The mission will be known as the Balloon Array for Radiation-belt Relativistic Electron Losses (BARREL) and will specifically look at what’s known as Van Allen Belts -- a ring of energetic charged particles that encircle Earth and are held in place by Earth's magnetic field. Outbursts from the sun can pump additional energy and particles into the radiation belts, allowing them to drain again in a matter of days or weeks, NASA said.  

The Van Allen belt extends above the equator at an altitude of about 4,000 miles. Particles inside the belt can penetrate spacecraft and prolonged exposure can damage instruments and be a hazard to astronauts or high-flying aircraft. BARREL is set to fly in 2013 and 2014, and will provide answers to how and where the Van Allen Belts, discovered in 1958, periodically drain into Earth's upper atmosphere.

BARREL will fly in conjunction with NASA's Radiation Belt Storm Probes satellites, due to launch in 2011. 

The balloons will be launched from Antarctica, NASA stated. They will expand to roughly the size of a large blimp when they reach the near-space research altitude. A single balloon of this type will hover at an altitude of approximately 21 miles for as long as two weeks.  

By carefully timing the launch of a series of balloons, about one per day, Dartmouth researchers can form a ring of balloons encircling the South Pole to study the total influx of radiation from the belts into Earth's atmosphere.


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