NASA ‘Super-Tiger’ Balloon Breaks Two Records Soaring over Antarctica

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Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility / NASA

You’d think the records would have to do with a figure like “50 million” — the number of cosmic rays an NASA science ballon drifting over Antarctica recently intercepted — but it actually involves a pair of flight duration records.

The large, unmanned helium balloon, impressively dubbed the Super Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder (or Super-Tiger for short), took off on Dec. 8, 2012 from a launch site near McMurdo Station, a U.S. research center located on the southern tip of Antarctica’s Ross Island. Thereafter, it hovered for more than 55 days at 127,000 feet — about as high as Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner’s epic jump last October — before NASA brought it down to complete the mission last Friday.

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Super-Tiger clinched its first record, “longest flight by a balloon of its size,” on Jan. 24 after flying for 46 days. It grabbed its second, “longest flight of any heavy-lift scientific balloon,” on Friday upon landing, clocking in at 55 days, one hour and 34 minutes aloft, edging past NASA’s Super Pressure Balloon, the previous record-holder, which flew for 54 days, one hour and 29 minutes in 2009.

These “long duration” science balloon are able to fly as long as they do because of unique conditions at the South Pole involving steady temperatures and a persistent low-pressure system called the “polar vortex.” Because of the constant daylight during Antarctic summers, day/night temperature fluctuations don’t occur, and the lack of heat-producing population centers also helps.

Xtreme Sports Science records aside, the Super-Tiger’s raison d’être involved deploying a new instrument designed to sort heavier-than-iron elements from other high-energy cosmic rays. The balloon apparently gathered so much data that NASA’s saying it could take two years to pore over. It’s purpose: to help scientists better understand where these elements come from, and how they achieve such high energies.

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