SuperTIGER-2 Finally Reaches Float Altitude, Starts Collecting Scientific Data

Three and a half weeks after being launched, a balloon-borne scientific instrument developed to investigate the source of cosmic rays is on its second prowl high above the continent of Antarctica.

The Super Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder (SuperTIGER) instrument is used to study the origin of cosmic rays. Image Credit: Wolfgang Zober.

Super Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder, or SuperTIGER for short, has been developed to quantify the rare, heavy elements in cosmic rays that indicate their origins outside of the solar system. The research is a collaboration among Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Minnesota, California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Goddard Space Flight Center.

It would be better if the balloon and instrument are up for a longer time.

The significance of our observation increases with the number of events we observe essentially linearly with time, so we simply want to have as long a flight as possible to maximize the statistics of the data collected. A day of data is a small increment of progress, and we just have to put our heads down and keep grinding away. SuperTIGER flights are marathons, not sprints.

Brian Rauch, Research Assistant Professor of Physics in Arts & Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

Rauch is the principal investigator for the SuperTIGER project.

“Fly as long as we can”

The balloon completed its first complete revolution of Antarctica on December 31st, 2019. Just over two weeks earlier, Rauch and his colleagues celebrated a successful launch after a series of difficult seasons on the ice.

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!” Rauch stated in a December 15th, 2019 press release.

Despite the fact that the researchers faced certain technical setbacks once the instrument was launched in air, NASA’s Balloon Program Office termed it a “picture-perfect launch.” According to Rauch, there were issues faced with a power supply, and one of the detector modules was removed due to a computer failure early in the flight.

This only further emphasizes the importance for us to fly as long as we can to make up for the loss in instrument collecting power,” he stated. “As it is, in this flight we may hope to collect about 40% of the statistics achieved with the first SuperTIGER flight.”

The 2012-13 SuperTIGER flight broke scientific ballooning records for longevity—staying afloat for a remarkable 55 days. The current mission will not challenge that record.

The way the stratospheric winds are circulating this season, our flight will be terminated when the balloon comes over a suitable location at the end of our second revolution around the continent.

Brian Rauch, Research Assistant Professor of Physics in Arts & Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

Sun Never Sets on SuperTIGER

There are two SuperTIGERs (team members) still on the ice, both from Washington University,” stated Rauch.

In order to provide continuous coverage for the duration of the flight, the day is divided into monitoring shifts,” he added. “Those of us on the ice get to cover the graveyard shift for the folks in the United States.

Rauch continued, “My routine has evolved into my getting up in the mid-afternoon, eating dinner, doing the monitoring shift in our office in Crary Lab, working in the office for another few hours or so, and then going to bed. (Graduate student in physics) Wolfgang Zober’s routine is similar, but he usually arrives, eats and gets to the office earlier than me and calls it a ‘day’ closer to the end of our shift.”

When I’m not monitoring, I go walk on the trails, taking photos of penguins and seals. I also make it a habit of socializing with other science groups to learn about other research being done here.

Wolfgang Zober, Graduate Student in Physics, Washington University in St. Louis

However, there are a few outliers to the standard. The scientists allotted a little time apart from their monitoring tasks to observe the launch of another balloon experiment, the BLAST-TNG mission headed by scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, on January 6th, 2020. But owing to technical issues, that voyage concluded just 15 hours into the flight.

There was no holiday time for the SuperTIGER team.

I managed to convince Wolfgang to take a break on New Year’s Eve to experience IceStock while I covered the monitoring shift alone. I did step outside just before midnight to see the New Year in,” concluded Rauch.

SuperTIGER II Launch Dec 16, 2019

Video Credit: Washington University in St. Louis.


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