Japanese astro-boffins race to recover pulsar-spotting balloon basket

It's raining science balloons in the Australian outback

For the second time this month, boffins will be scrambling towards the deserts in the middle of the Australian State of Queensland to recover the payload from a giant stratospheric balloon.

This time, the arrival was deliberate: a team from Japan's Nagoya and Kobe universities launched the balloon to carry a payload of instruments tuned to collect observations of the Vela Pulsar.

The 800 kg payload launched yesterday from Alice Springs and reached an altitude of 35km before coming down a mere 700 km or so from a remote spot call Targomindah, where NASA boffins are heading to recover their globe-circling effort.

Even as pulsars go, Vela is a high-energy object: its particles scream out at nearly 70 per cent of light speed along its rotation axis. As Dr Ravi Sood of the Alice Springs balloon launch station told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the pulsar “does some bizarre things”.

The pulsar, 1,000 light-years from Earth, has a diameter estimated at a mere 19 km, and rotates 11 times per second. The stratospheric mission will seek to record the timing and energies of the gamma rays arriving from Vela.

Back to the balloon: it carries sensor plates designed to measure high-energy gamma rays, and that's a problem, because the plates have to be kept cold. Hence rather than hitching a ride with the NASA recovery team, the Nagoya / Kobe gents are on a sprint to try and get to Muttaburra within 12 hours.

The group has left Alice Springs on a chartered flight to the town of Longreach (120 km by road from the landing site), where a chopper awaits for the last leg.

After recovery, the ABC says the payload will be taken by road (presumably in a refrigerated truck) to Sydney University where the plates will be developed.

Because of a balloon crashing on takeoff in 2010 (below), roadblocks were in place for yesterday's launch. ®

Youtube Video

This 2010 accident made Alice Springs police careful about launches

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