WashU goes to Antarctica to study the stars

Super-TIGER balloon seen from a distance.
Super-TIGER’s launch, Dec. 9, 2012, seen from a distance. The ­volume of the balloon on the ground is less than 1 percent of its volume at the float altitude of 120,000 feet. Personnel not considered mission-critical are required to stand well back during a launch. (Photo: Ryan Murphy)

WashU researchers travel to remote, isolated, ­hostile ­Antarctica to conduct balloon-borne astronomy ­experiments. Their ultimate goal is to solve the mysteries of cosmic rays — the rain of charged particles from space falling ­continuously on Earth.

Antarctica’s climate is the most hostile of any place on Earth, so why would anyone choose to go there to study the stars?

Improbable though it might seem, the frozen continent is an ideal observatory because a persistent current of air, called the polar vortex, circles the continent at high altitudes. A ­balloon launched into the vortex will make great leisurely circuits of the continent at the very edge of the atmosphere.

In fall 2012, NASA launched three balloon-borne astronomy experiments from Williams (or Willy) Field in Antarctica, but the star of the season was ­Super-TIGER, a two-ton detector the size of a ­billiard table designed by a consortium of ­institutions led by the university.

Read the story in Washington Magazine: Cosmic Research in Antarctica