LOS ALAMOS, N.M., January 4, 1999 -- As the Team RE/MAX Global Balloon Flight circles the globe in coming weeks it will carry a science payload designed by scientists at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Los Alamos' role in the project has been to provide special video and gamma ray detection instruments that will aid in the investigation of atmospheric phenomena known as "red sprites" and "blue jets".
The Team RE/MAX Global Balloon Flight (http://www.remax.com/remax/balloon/intro/index.htm) is an attempt by a multinational crew to fly nonstop around the world in the Earth's stratosphere. Flying along a path that will roughly follow the Tropic of Capricorn, at altitudes between 80,000 and 130,000 feet, the flight is expected to last from 16 to 18 days after a launch that is scheduled to take place this week in Alice Springs, Australia.
Red sprites and blue jets are lightning-like electrical discharges that occur during thunderstorms. Since blue jets and red sprites typically shoot upward from the tops of thunderstorm clouds and this is the peak of summer thunderstorm season in the Southern Hemisphere, there should be ample opportunity for the Team RE/MAX Global Balloon Flight to capture data about these fascinating phenomena.
"The project actually began about four years ago when Bob Martin, one of the Team RE/MAX pilots, approached Los Alamos scientists with the idea of using a stratospheric balloon flight he was organizing to conduct research" says Bill Feldman, one of the payload project's principal investigators. "While Martin sought out sponsors for the project, we put together a package of data collection instruments from surplus instruments we had around the Lab. We worked it on our own time with only a small amount of internal funds. It was kind of a shoestring operation. Nonetheless, the low-cost project has the potential to gather unique scientific knowledge that will provide fundamental insight into the mechanism that generates upward lightning."
Feldman believes the knowledge gained from the experiment could help determine which of two prevailing theories better explains the upward- bursting lightning phenomena. One theory holds that conventional lightning from thunderstorms generates electromagnetic pulses that travel upward from the thunderstorm and excites air molecules until they fluoresce. A second theory maintains that a high-energy electron, possibly generated by a cosmic ray from space, collides with an air molecule and this, in turn, kicks out more electrons. This mechanism creates a virtual fountain of electrons surging upward to excite even more air molecules and causes them to fluoresce in what has been described as a runaway atmospheric breakdown. The fluorescence resulting from this atmospheric breakdown creates the images seen as sprites and jets. The Los Alamos instrumentation includes a detector to measure any gamma ray radiation released in conjunction with the upward-bursting lightning because it will uniquely discriminate between these two theories.
Expanded knowledge of the upward-bursting lightning could, in turn, aid atmospheric scientists and aeronautical engineers in determining what effect or threat, if any, this phenomena might have on the planned new generation of commercial aircraft -- aircraft that will fly at altitudes well above those currently used by commercial airline services. It might also explain unusual gamma-ray emissions detected in the Earth's atmosphere by the Burst and Transient Source Experiment BATSE (http://cossc.gsfc.nasa.gov/cossc/outreach/descriptions/batse.html) on the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory CGRO (cossc.gsfc.nasa.gov/cossc/outreach/descriptions/cgro_info.html) After circumnavigating the globe the balloon will land again in Central Australia in mid-January. The Los Alamos investigators contributing to the project are Bill Feldman, Robert Carlos, Hal DeHaven, Ken Eack and Dave Suszcynsky. For Feldman and his team, the Team RE/Max Global Balloon Flight is an exciting event both because it is the culmination of years of planning and because it provides a cost- effective way to get a scientific payload into the upper reaches of the atmosphere for a several week period.
Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy.
The above story is based on materials provided by Los Alamos National Lab. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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