NASA’s Scientific Balloon Program Reaches New Heights


„For decades, NASA has released enormous scientific balloons into Earth’s atmosphere, miles above the altitude of commercial flights. The Balloon Program is currently preparing new missions bearing sensitive instruments, including one designed to investigate the birth of our universe and another with ballooning origins that will fly on the International Space Station.

NASA’s Primordial Inflation Polarization Explorer (PIPER), which will launch a series of test flights over the next few years, could confirm the theory that our nascent universe expanded by a trillion trillion (1024) times immediately following the big bang. This rapid inflation would have shaken the fabric of space-time, generating ripples called gravitational waves. These waves, in turn, should have produced detectable distortions in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the earliest light in the universe lengthened into microwaves today by cosmic expansion. The patterns will appear in measurements of how the CMB light is organized, a property called polarization. Discovering twisting, pinwheel-like polarization patterns in the CMB will prove inflation occurred and take astrophysicists back to the brink of the big bang.

While Albert Einstein’s theories accurately describe gravity in today’s dilated cosmos, these large-scale physical laws did not apply when our universe was still the size of a hydrogen atom. To reconcile this disparity, PIPER will map the entire sky at four different frequencies, differentiating between twisting patterns in the CMB (indicating primordial gravitational waves) and different polarization signals due to interstellar dust. To maintain sensitivity, the telescope will fly immersed in a bucket of liquid helium the size of a hot tub but much cooler — nearly 457 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (minus 272 degrees Celsius) and close to absolute zero, the coldest temperature possible.

The PIPER mission was designed, built and tested at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the University of British Columbia, Canada, the National Institute of Standards and Technology at Boulder, Colorado, and Cardiff University in Wales. (…)“


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