A thin white balloon was seen floating over The Gap. The balloon that was almost as big as a football oval was filled with helium and was actually launched to find out what’s happening in the center of the galaxy.
The ABLS has been launching balloons for over 40 years to heights of up to 40 km. The facility is owned by NASA and managed by CSIRO. It places payloads above 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere. The helium-filled balloon is a project formed by the CSIRO and Japanese Space Agency (JAXA).
Balloon Launching Station director Professor Ravi Sood said that in order to get the balloon to the top of the atmosphere, it should be very large. The scientific balloon is around 500,000 cubic meters in volume and is 105 meters wide. It will collect important information about gamma rays stemming from the center of the galaxy. Conditions have to be just right to successfully launch the balloon. Once the balloon is up, it will study the galaxy using atmospheric survey instruments and sensitive space telescopes that can weigh up to 600 kg.
According to Professor Sood, it measures gamma rays with extremely high precision. He said that the balloon’s launching site was not an accident. It was picked due to Central Australia’s proximity to the Milky Way. The Milky Way, which is the center of the galaxy, is almost overhead from Alice Springs. Scientists hope that by knowing the secrets of the galaxy, they will be able to better understand black holes.
About 43 engineers and astrophysicists from the Japanese Space Agency stayed in Alice Springs to participate in the mission. The project has its own share of hazards as well. A similar exercise was done in 2010. Unfortunately, the exercise was a disaster as the space balloon went off course and crashed into a parked car. The incident frightened a local couple who had watched the launch.
According to Professor Sood, two more balloons will be launched this year. The weather conditions should be right for the launch. Scientists need to wait for favorable winds, so the balloons can travel to the atmosphere successfully before landing in Longreach, central Queensland.
This project is just one of the many attempts to study the galaxy and learn its secrets. Whether or not the project will provide the results they are after is a matter that will be known in the future.