Physicists launch cosmic ray telescope from Antarctica

A team of Washington University in St. Louis scientists at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, successfully launched its SuperTIGER (Super Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder) instrument, which is used to study the origin of cosmic rays.

Cosmic rays are high-energy particles from beyond the solar system that bombard Earth’s atmosphere. SuperTIGER is designed to measure the rare, heavy elements in cosmic rays that hold clues about where these particles are made. The new research might also help explain how these energetic particles are accelerated to attain a speed that is close to the speed of light.

SuperTIGER team
SuperTIGER team after compatibility testing on Dec. 10. (Photo courtesy SuperTIGER team)

SuperTIGER is a collaboration among Washington University, Goddard Space Flight Center, California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Minnesota.

“After three Antarctic seasons — with 19 launch attempts, two launches and one recovery of the payload from a crevasse field — it is wonderful to have SuperTIGER-2 finally reach float altitude and begin collecting scientific data. The third season is the charm!” said Brian Rauch, research assistant professor of physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University and principal investigator for SuperTIGER.

The launch occurred at about 2:55 a.m. local time Dec. 16 in New Zealand (7:55 a.m. U.S. Central time). Under cloudy skies and temperatures of about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, researchers watched as the SuperTIGER instrument was carried aloft by a giant 39.5 million-cubic-foot scientific balloon. The balloon will ultimately reach a height of about 129,000 feet — nearly four times the typical cruising altitude of commercial airliners.

At this height, the detectors on SuperTIGER will fly above 99.5% of the atmosphere on Earth.

balloon inflating
The SuperTIGER instrument was carried aloft by a giant scientific balloon, shown here during inflation prior to the launch. (Photo courtesy SuperTIGER team)

Researchers said that SuperTIGER will keep recording data as long as the conditions allow them to keep the balloon afloat. SuperTIGER’s 2012-13 flight lasted 55 days.

Data collected during the ongoing flight will be used to test emerging models of cosmic-ray origins in clumps of hot, massive and relatively short-lived stars known as OB associations, as well as testing models for determining which particles will be accelerated from such associations.

The balloon that carries SuperTIGER is also transporting four, smaller experimental devices that are piggybacked onto its core scientific payload. The list includes two experiments by Washington University researchers: one developed by James H. Buckley, professor of physics, called APT-Lite; and another by Alex Meshik, research professor of physics, to help solve a longstanding “xenon paradox.”

The launch occurred at about 2:55 a.m. local time Dec. 16 in New Zealand. (Photo courtesy SuperTIGER team)

Individuals who are interested in following SuperTIGER as the flight progresses can follow along on the Washington University team’s Twitter account, @SuperTigerLDB, or by following the Twitter handle @NASAUniverse.

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