30 April 2010

School of Physics researchers took part in a multi-million-dollar NASA-sponsored stratospheric balloon mission from Alice Springs.

Launched in mid-April the vast balloon, named Mission 611N under the records of the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, carried onboard an instrument developed by the University of California - TIGRE (Tracking and Imaging Gamma Ray Experiment) that is associated with the cassette of uncured polymer samples developed by the University of Sydney's School of Physics.

Sent into the stratosphere of 40km altitude the goal of the experiment was an exposure of uncured composites in stratosphere. Dr Alexey Kondyurin, a Senior Research Fellow within the School who was at the launch said that the investigation is directed to a development of polymeric material that is curable in space for use as structural components in space habitats. "Using a balloon means we have access to a unique combination of low atmospheric pressure, high intensity UV radiation including short wavelength UV, diurnal temperature variations and other aspects associated with solar irradiation had a strong influence on chemical processes in polymeric materials. These conditions cannot be replicated in a lab."

The experiment involved expositing a cassette containing polymer samples to the local environment during the balloon flights. The samples consist of uncured polymer matrix and carbon fibers. The polymer matrix is activated by stratospheric conditions (temperature and sun irradiation) and the chemical polycondensation reaction is initiated. Control samples in the second cassette were kept on ground. After the flight, the samples are analysed by spectral, chemical and mechanical methods. These results will be used for preparation of the space flight experiments on Earth orbit.

The Columbia Scientific Balloon Team provided the balloon flight over a three-day duration. The scientific payload landed successfully in 990km far from Alice Springs, near the city of Longreach, in Queensland.

Following on from the first mission a second balloon was launched in Alice Springs. Unfortunately this balloon was suddenly taken by wind and with the horizontal speed too high and vertical speed not enough to lift the payload from the earth it hit the ground, a car and a fence before finally crashing. "We are very sorry for our colleagues from Berkley. They put a great deal of effort to create and to adjust this unique equipment," commented Dr Kondyurin who had just returned from Alice Springs.

"Balloon launches and flights are risky. The conditions at the launch are critical and the wind should be less than 10-12 knots. Launches usually early morning, when sun just starts to heat the ground with the wind at its weakest," he explains. "If the balloon has started to fill with helium, the inflation cannot be stopped. The wind needs to be predicted one hour before the inflation starts. However when inflation's underway and a 'local' wind suddenly sets in place unfortunately its almost impossible to correctly predict."

Contact: Alison Muir

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