NASA's Scientific Ballooning Program

Balloon in Antarctica

What's New

New NASA Balloon Successfully Flight-Tested Over Antarctica NASA and the National Science Foundation have successfully launched and demonstrated a newly designed super pressure balloon prototype that may enable a new era of high-altitude scientific research.
(Jan. 8, 2009)

Great Moments in GRIStory The instrument is in pieces now, but its legacy lives on. Twenty-one years ago this month, the balloon-borne Gamma-Ray Imaging Spectrometer (GRIS) made the first of nine trips into the stratosphere. Those voyages, totaling 223 hours of flight time, helped astronomers catch a glimpse of the high-energy universe.
(May 28, 2009)

Image of the newly designed super pressure balloon at float altitude over Antarctica.
This image, taken through a telescope, is of the newly designed super pressure balloon at float altitude over Antarctica. Credit: Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility

Large unmanned helium balloons provide NASA with an inexpensive means to place payloads into a space environment. The unique capabilities of this program are crucial for the development of new technologies and payloads for NASA's space flight missions. Many important scientific observations in fields such as hard x-ray/gamma- ray and infra-red astronomy, cosmic rays and atmospheric studies have been made from balloons. The newly developed capability is focused on thin-film high altitude balloons for higher altitude flights and super pressure balloons for long duration ballooning has greatly expanded the opportunities for scientific studies from balloons.

On January 7, 2009 three long duration, sub-orbital flights were launched and operated in Antarctica during the current Southern Hemisphere summer, stepping over a milestone for 20 years of scientific ballooning in the region. This accomplishment was a result of a partnership between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with NSF providing communication and logistics and NASA providing the satellite communication link.

These balloon flights carry the balloons and their instruments at the edge of space and are used to investigate the nature of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays and search for anti-matter, as air currents that circle Antaratica. Unique atmosphere circulation over Antarctica during the austral summer allows scientists to launch balloons from a site near McMurdo Station and recover them from very nearly the same spot weeks later.

Antarctic flights are of a long duration because of the polar vortex, a persistent, large, low-pressure system because there is very little atmosphere or temperature change. Constant daylight in Antarctic means no day-to-night temperature fluctuations on the balloon, which helps the balloon stay at a nearly constant altitude for a long time. Since the beginning of the collaboration between NSF and NASA in 1989, one or two flights per year has been achieved.

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