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Balloons, Poles and Helicopters

Friday, 14 January 2000

    It appears that summer is really just about over. Yesterday it was 26 degrees at noon, but by 4:00 P.M. it had dropped to 9 degrees with a terrific wind. Most everyone had to go home and get more clothes. The weather changes so quickly and so drastically around here. I am sure we will have a few more nice days, but I do not expect too many.

    It has been a week all about weather. I have been working some with the people who do the Long Duration Balloon flights. We got to be friends back in the days when I was working out at Willy Field. They have been trying to launch this balloon since about the middle of December and the weather has just not cooperated. Even with all of the beautiful weather we have had here in town, the weather at Willy can be quite different. Also, even when the weather at Willy is good it doesn't mean that the winds just a little higher are good for flying.

    This year they are to launch two balloons, each with a different payload. The Flare Genesis payload is a solar telescope to study solar activity such as flares, coronal mass ejections, and coronal heating. Solar eruptions and flares reach millions of miles out from the sun, and can cause enormous electromagnetic fields which can disrupt many services here on Earth. The telescope used in this payload is an 80–cm aperture telescope. By sending the telescope high up over Antarctica you have the benefit of 24 hours a day of sunlight. Also, because of the size of the balloon, it flies in the upper stratosphere, above 99.7% of the atmosphere. This is a great improvement over using the telescope here on earth.

Flare Genesis telescope
Flare Genesis telescope

    The second payload is the MAXIS experiment (M eV Auroral X–ray Imaging Spectroscopy). Its purpose is to study electron precipitation from the magnetosphere into the ionosphere, in other words the source of the auroras northern and southern lights). X–rays are also produced in the auroras and there will be instruments aboard to measure all of these things.

MAXIS payload
MAXIS payloud

    At this time of year the winds in the upper stratosphere become cyclonic, but on an enormous scale. What this means is that a balloon launched to fly at that height will circle the continent and be able to land quite near its starting point.

    The balloon project is operated and funded by NASA. The balloons which will carry these payloads are quite amazing in themselves. The material they are made of is a plastic thinner than your average sandwich bag, yet quite strong. I was not able to push through it with my finger. Before inflation the balloon is around 1000 feet tall. When inflated with helium it will be able to carry payloads weighing as much as 6000 pounds. When fully inflated the balloon could easily house 3 football fields. They will fly at an altitude of somewhere around 25 miles.

    There has been a lot of tension at the LDB (Long Duration Balloon) site because of the weather. The cut–off date for launching at all is the 15th of January. Usually the launches take place sometime in the 3rd or 4th week of December. By the beginning of the second week of January they still had not launched, and the weather did not look good. Last week we had a day which looked really great, so they took everything out to the launch site. By the time it was all set up, the weather had changed and they had to scrub the entire day. Finally on January 10 the winds proved favorable. There was quite a bit of fog on the ground, interspersed with occasional sunlight. And by 4 in the afternoon they finally launched the first balloon.

Balloon stretched out on the ice

    The launch process is as follows. First everything is carried out onto the launch pad — an enormous circle on the ice at Willy Field. The balloon is laid out and attached to the payload, then it is partially filled with helium. As it rises to altitude it will expand until it reaches full inflation. At that point the balloon will have a diameter of almost 900 feet. The trip around the pole will take anywhere from 9–15 days. At the end of that time a radio command is sent which will separate the payload from the balloon. The payload will then drop on a parachute and should reach the earth in approximately 45 minutes. As the payload is separated from the balloon it will create a tear in the balloon, releasing the helium. The balloon will also fall to the earth and be retrieved and discarded.

Flare Genesis telescope (L) and the inflating balloon
Balloon and payload (too small to see) after launch

    As soon as the first balloon was out of the line of sight, they could think about launching the second balloon. The second launch took place almost 48 hours after the first. As you can imagine there were many relieved people. The balloons are now following their course circumnavigating the Pole. All instruments are working properly. We all eagerly await their return.

    This week I got a lesson in climbing poles. I have been asking the linemen to teach me to climb ever since we did the big airport move. Finally we went out and I started learning. They strapped gaff hooks on my boots and told me how to climb. I free climbed at first which was a little difficult. Then I got to wear the belt which made climbing so much easier. You can lean your full weight back on the belt and have so much mobility. It is great. I managed to survive the day with a minimum of splinters. I only slipped once and that was just a couple of feet above the ground. Of course I still have to practice a lot, which I will do. We do not climb more than about 5 feet until we get much better. It was fun.

Irma pole-climbing without climbing belt
Irma pole-climbing with climbing belt

    The most exciting part of my week came on Wednesday. I was supposed to go back out to LDB to watch the second balloon launch, but at 10:30 A.M. my foreman called to tell me I had gotten a boondoggle — a helicopter trip out to the ice edge and back. I had to go home and change into my full ECW gear and be at the helipad by 12:30 P.M. I have never been on a helicopter before and was just a little leery about it. Well, it was so much fun I am ready to go back again and again. We flew in a Huey Bell 212.

Huey Bell 212 helicopter

    The ice edge is about 25 miles out. The icebreaker has been breaking a channel from there into town so that ships can start coming in. We flew all along the channel out to the edge of the ice.

Channel cut through the ice by the icebreaker
Channel cut through the ice by the icebreaker
Ice edge

It seems really strange to see open water again after all this time. There were penguins and seals all along the channel. At one point we hovered over a space in the channel where some whales were sticking their heads out of the water looking for penguins or seals.


When we reached the ice edge we landed the helicopter on the ice and got out.

Adelie penguins swimming

    We could walk almost all the way to the edge of the ice. I got down on my knees at one point and reached out and put my hand in the water. There were penguins swimming around everywhere. They would leap out of the water almost like a dolphin. They would also jump up onto the ice and walk over to see what we were. They had absolutely no fear of us at all. We could see orcas out in the open water. Suddenly there was a big spouting sound and we looked up to see an orca not 25 feet from where we were standing.

Adelie penguins
Adelie penguin

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Irma Hale
McMurdo Station, Antarctica

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