They nicknamed it the "Little Balloon That Could." Launched in December of 2010 from McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the research balloon was a test run and it bobbed lower every day like it had some kind of leak. But every day for five days it rose back up in the sky to some 112,000 feet in the air.
Down on Earth, physicist Robyn Millan was cheering it on, hoping the test launch would bode well for the success of her grand idea: launches in 2013 and 2014 of 20 such balloons to float in the circular wind patterns above the South Pole. Each balloon will help track electrons from space that get swept up in Earth's magnetic field and slide down into our atmosphere. Such electrons are an integral part of the turbulent magnetic space weather system that extends from the sun to Earth.
A professor at Dartmouth College, Millan is the principal investigator for a project called BARREL, or Balloon Array for RBSP Relativistic Electron Losses. Millan's proposal will work hand in hand with NASA's Radiation Belt Space Probes (RBSP) mission, two NASA spacecraft due to launch in 2012 to study a mysterious part of Earth's magnetic environs called the Van Allen radiation belts. The radiation belts are made up of two regions, each one a gigantic donut of protons and electrons that surrounds Earth.
"We're both looking at the loss of particles from the radiation belts," says Millan. "RBSP sits in space near the equatorial plane and looks at the particles along magnetic field lines there. These particles come into our atmosphere – following magnetic field lines to their base at the Poles – and produce X-rays. BARREL measures those X-rays. Together we can combine measurements of the same set of particles."
Figuring out what causes this rain of electrons will do more than simply improve understanding of the physics behind what drives such high-energy particles. The charged particles within the radiation belts can damage sensitive electronics on spacecraft like those used for global positioning systems and communications, and can injure humans in space. (The electrons don't make it all the way to Earth, so pose no danger to those of us on the ground.) Experiments like BARREL and RBSP help us understand the processes and mitigate those risks.
Millan began working on balloons during her graduate work at University of California, Berkeley, where she studied physics. She worked on a balloon called MAXIS that focused on electron precipitation from the magnetosphere into the ionosphere. "Then," she says, "We got this idea. They launch these huge payloads in Antarctica, but before that they send up smaller test balloons to make sure conditions are right for the big launch. And we thought – what if you could put instruments on those? So we took our payload, and miniaturized it."
She and her team, which includes scientists and students at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and University of Washington, set about making payloads that weigh only 50 pounds for balloons that are some 90 feet in diameter. That still sounds fairly big unless you know that the typical balloons launched in Antarctica are the size of a football field and carry payloads of some 3,000 pounds. The team received funding from the National Science Foundation to fly a total of six small balloons in 2005, and shortly thereafter she learned that NASA had put out a call for experiments to support RBSP.
David Sibeck, the mission scientist for RBSP at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., recalls that Millan's project proposal was well-tailored to RBSP's goals. "One of RBSP's main challenges will be to differentiate between the hordes of theories that try to explain why the belts wax and wane over time," Sibeck says. "The RBSP spacecraft will be equipped to distinguish between different options, but Millan's balloons have an advantage in one specific area: they can measure particles that break out of the belts and make it all the way to Earth's atmosphere."