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How NASA uses balloons to do science on the cheap

Among NASA's vast array of hi-tech gadgets, its scientific balloons look like something out of a bygone era when space shuttles and planetary rovers were little more than science fiction.

But looks can be deceiving.

Considered the workhorses of the space community, these balloons are beloved by scientists for offering cheap ways to study everything from the ozone hole to distant planets at a fraction of the price of putting the same equipment on a space mission.

And occasionally, they have been part of groundbreaking science. NASA's John Mather did some of his early investigations on balloons that later contributed to his Nobel Prize-winning work that affirmed the Big Bang, and the international BOOMERANG consortium used balloons to determine that the curvature of the universe is neither positive nor negative but that it's flat.

"They probably have made an outsized impact on science for the amount of publicity they have gotten," Princeton University's William Jones, who has put payloads on several balloon missions including BOOMERANG (balloon observations of millimetric extragalactic radiation and geophysic), told CBS News.

"Take BOOMERANG, for example. That established the cosmological model that we still believe to be accurate today," he said. "The balloon program delivers space quality data for a tiny fraction of the price that an orbital mission would cost. It's really the bang for the buck you get for that program and that spans a wide range of fields of physics and astrophysics."

Now, NASA is planning to launch what many scientists see as the next generation of these balloons this week in Wanaka, New Zealand. Initially scheduled for March 15, the launch has been postponed on account of Cyclone Pam.

The new so-called super pressure balloon is capable of staying in the air for up to 100 days, which is much longer than the two weeks of standard balloons.

Made of polyethylene film, which is the same type material used for plastic bags, the pumpkin-shaped balloon is massive. This one is big enough to fit upwards of 100 Goodyear blimps within it, and can go as high as 110,000 feet into the air, into what is called the near-space environment, above 99.5 percent of the atmosphere.

The plan is for the $1.2 million balloon to head east toward South America, circumnavigating the globe several times before landing most likely in Argentina. It will remain in the southern hemisphere, only because NASA doesn't have the approvals to fly over Russia.

While this flight won't have any payloads, the $3 million project with 11 different camera systems on board is considered a crucial test for the program. "This is the most extreme test of the balloon itself," said Debbie Fairbrother, chief of the NASA Balloon Program Office.

It will be the first time that a balloon of this size will be flown in typical day-night conditions, which would have been impossible with standard balloons, since gases heat up during the day and then cool at night, changing the pressure and volume of the balloon, and therefore its altitude. Earlier flights have been done in Antarctica during the summer where it has been light around the clock.

"If I take our standard balloon and launch it here, I will have very large fluctuations from day to night on the order of 40,000 feet or more," Fairbrother said. "Scientists want to be in the stratosphere. They want to be high. If at night the balloon comes down too far, some of them can't do their science."

Fairbrother said scientists are attracted to the fact the unmanned balloon will be traveling at the mid-latitudes or Earth's temperate zones between the tropics and the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions.

The view from a super pressure balloon at altitude. NASA/BPO

These conditions are ideal for a range of scientific experiments, from using telescopes to repeatedly observe phenomena within the atmosphere, such as storms or the dynamics of water, methane or other cycles, to studying gamma-ray astrophysics, cosmic rays, cosmic microwave background, or high resolution optical astrophysics.

If the test flight goes off without a hitch, NASA hopes to have its first balloon in the air next year with scientific equipment.

"If this is successful, then it's oh, wow, we can do this," NASA's Mark Sistilli told CBS News. "Then, scientists are going to form a line at NASA saying, hey, can you fly our payload on one of those things? There is a whole class of scientists who would love to fly for multiple weeks, perhaps a couple of months."

Among them is Jones, who is partnering with the University of Toronto and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to hopefully put a powerful wide-field imaging telescope on the super pressure balloon platform.

"The space-like environment and the low backgrounds at night allow for imaging quality in the near ultra-violet to near infra-red that cannot be achieved anywhere but in space," he said.

"With this system, we can probe a variety of topics in astrophysics and cosmology. We intend to focus initially on gaining a better understanding the distribution of dark matter in our universe," he said. "Ultimately, this system will provide the capability of the Hubble Space Telescope at a cost of several million dollars, in contrast to the several-billion-dollar cost of the space mission."

Another scientist hoping to get his project on what he called a "poor man's launch vehicle" is Chris Walker. A University of Arizona astronomy professor, Walker has submitted to NASA a proposal to map the Milky Way as part of his effort to better understand the interstellar medium, which is the gas and dust from which stars, planets and people are made of.

His research cannot be done from the ground because the far infrared wavelengths he studies are absorbed by Earth's water vapor. He could try and get onto a space mission but cost are prohibitive - $200 million compared to $35 million for a balloon - and there would be much stricter limits on the weight and power of his equipment.

"With the balloon, you have much more money to spend on your instruments," he said, adding the new balloons would allow him to get five times more data than in the past.

"You wouldn't think that, because the balloon is low-tech," he said. "But you have much more money to spend on your instrument....and you can do leading edge science."

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