International research team prepares for NASA balloon launch in Wanaka

Preparing for a super pressure balloon launch in Wanaka this week are Prof Steve Boggs of University of California, ...

Preparing for a super pressure balloon launch in Wanaka this week are Prof Steve Boggs of University of California, Berkeley, NASA balloon programme chief Debora Fairbrother and Prof Hsiang-Kuang Chang of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.

It's fair to say when astrophysicists were children, most were fascinated by the night sky and dreamed of exploring the galaxy.

But not very many have manifest that dream in a windowless helicopter hangar in small town Wanaka, population 6,500.

Now, in Wanaka, 10 happy Compton Spectrometer and Image (COSI) researchers are doing just that.

Astronomy and physics scientists, from left, Che-Yen Chu, Taiwan, Jeng-Lun Chiu, US, Steve Boggs, US, Hsiang-Kuang ...

Astronomy and physics scientists, from left, Che-Yen Chu, Taiwan, Jeng-Lun Chiu, US, Steve Boggs, US, Hsiang-Kuang Chang, Taiwan, Brent Mochizuki, US, Carolyn Kierans, US, Steven McBride, US, Alex Lowell, US, Chien-Ying Yang, Taiwan, at Wanaka with NASA balloon programme chief Debora Fairbrother.

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These ones - perhaps a rare bunch indeed - also say they don't lie in bed at night worrying whether they've forgotten to connect any of the electrical cables that sprout from their machines. More on that later.

Come April 1, weather willing, the team from University of California, Berkeley (US) and National Tsing Hua University (Taiwan), will commit their $1.5 million ($US1 million) payload of electronics equipment and a very expensive telescope to the skies.

A Nasa Balloon similar to the one to be launched at Wanaka on April 1.

A Nasa Balloon similar to the one to be launched at Wanaka on April 1.

Most of the team have been here since February, and have worked pretty much non-stop, taking just a handful of days off.

Their science project will drift suspended under NASA's $1.94 million ($US1.3 million) super pressure balloon, 40km above the earth, and the researchers and NASA teams have high hopes it will stay in the stratosphere for a record 100 days.

The physics and astronomy research team is being led by Professor Steve Boggs, of the US, and Professor Hsiang-Kuang Chang of Taiwan.

The 2015 NASA balloon launch at Wanaka Airport. The main  balloon is at the bottom. The tow balloon is on the top.

The 2015 NASA balloon launch at Wanaka Airport. The main balloon is at the bottom. The tow balloon is on the top.

Anything like last year's trial Wanaka flight, which was aborted over Australia on its 33rd day after it sprung a leak, would be fantastic, they said, because a similar flight attempt in 2014 was aborted on its second day, also because of a leak. 

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Their intention, or "mission of opportunity", is to look for exotic objects in space; things like black holes, neutron stars, and anti matter. 

These exotic space objects emit gamma rays, and the team has spent 10 years devising a special telescope, the Compton Spectrometer and Image (COSI), to detect them.

The slightly complicated explanation is the COSI is a "ULDB-borne soft gamma-ray telescope, designed to probe the origins of galactic positrons, uncover sites of nucleosynthesis in the galaxy, and perform pioneering studies of gamma-ray polarisation in a number of source classes".

The short story is the team is studying the evolution of the universe.

Boggs is excited because in Wanaka, with this telescope, the team has a pioneering opportunity to map the whole sky, learn more about anti matter and understand the laws of physics better.

"Our galaxy is like a sombrero and we are on the outside of it. In New Zealand, because of its latitudes, we get a good view that we don't get in the Northern Hemisphere," he explained at a presentation to about 100 invited guests at a NASA function in Wanaka last week.

Gamma rays are the "brightest explosions in the cosmos" and just like light, have different colours that allow scientists to study the "very deeply buried" processes around the formation of black holes or in the heart of a supernova, Boggs said.

The COSI is a different type of telescope in that it does not have mirrors, because you can't see gamma rays with mirrors. It uses complicated detectors instead.

In fact, the whole payload is a very complicated instrument and each of the students, ranging from Masters through to post-doctoral researchers, are working on their own payload projects.

Another three undergraduate students are involved in the research but are not in Wanaka.

The two universities have been collaborating on the COSI project for about 10 years, with each sub-team receiving funding from their own Government and university sources.

Boggs got into astronomy at high school and was the first in his family to attend college. 

"I had moved, with my family, from a city to the country and for the first time could look up and see all the stars. That was pretty incredible to me . . . It just started to all click together at high school . . . It has always been a fun hobby for me. I am fortunate to have it as a career and that NASA supports that," he said, in a later interview.

Chang gained his PhD in astrophysics at Bonn University, Germany. He became interested in space when he was "very, very small"  and he also did not have other scientists in his family.

Gazing at an optically clear night sky was best done in the mountains because many people now lived in Taiwan, creating a very bright sky, he said.

"About 10 years ago there was a chance that Taiwan's National Space Organisation wanted to push for international collaboration. At the same time, Steve was also looking for some more resources to push the project," Chang explained.

If all goes well, Chang and Boggs are looking forward to more visits to Wanaka, possibly in 2018.

The chunky payload weighs about 2,267kg, with the science part accounting for about 1000kg. 

The metal tower, or gondola, sports a couple of antenna, and the small but very expensive telescope nestled out of view right on the top.

The gondola also contains lots of electronic equipment, all connected by a carefully constructed birds nest of cables.

With millions of dollars invested in pioneering space research at stake, does anyone have nightmares that a cable might not be quite clicked in? 

​"I will neither confirm nor deny that has happened. We spend a lot of money checking this all out," Boggs said. 

"No," NASA balloon programme chief Debora Fairbrother said. "That's why we test. The payload has been operating for two weeks now. We've been taking it outside and connecting to Texas to make sure."

The team will also do a "hang test" on Wednesday to check all the equipment is compatible. Solar panels will also be connected to the gondola.

On launch day, the team will spend at least six hours from about 2am, making sure the whole thing - payload and balloon - is connected end to end so it can lift off soon after dawn on Friday, weather permitting.

NASA's balloon launch is the fourth test flight for this particular 516,499m2 balloon.

Lessons learned in the 2014 and 2015 launches have been applied and Fairbrother is optimistic about achieving the desired results for NASA and the scientists.

The total operational cost of the launch would be between $2.99 million ($US2million) and $4.48 million ($US3million), Fairbrother said.


 - Stuff


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