The BARREL Mission


During the summer, when the weather was supposedly nicer down here, we have various groups of scientists setting up, monitoring and doing experiments of all kinds. This is, after all, why the base is here. One of these this year was an experiment carried out for NASA called the BARREL mission.  BARREL stands for Balloon Array for Radiation Belt Relativistic Electron Losses.  The project is run by Dartmouth College and is headed by Robyn Millan.

Two NASA probes are circling the Earth taking readings from within the Van Allen Belt, these readings are then combined with readings taken from balloons launched from Earth to try to get a better picture of what happens to the particles entering the earths atmosphere. The BARREL Project is the balloon side of this mission.

The Van Allen Radiation Belt, named after James Van Allen, is one layer of energetic charged particles held in place by the Earths magnetic field.  It is solar radiation hitting the Earths magnetic field that cause the Auroras that some of you back home may have been lucky enough to see over the last month, and the ones in the south that I’ll be hoping to see later this year when we start getting an actual night sky. Without the Earths magnetosphere, which is created by the spinning of the planets iron core, we would be unlikely to have life on earth, with the harmful radiation getting through and doing us all some serious damage. The solar radiation from the sun and the way it interacts with the magnetosphere is known as space weather, something that is studied quite a bit at Halley.

So, the BARREL team has been launching huge balloons high up into our atmosphere for the past few years trying to get a better understanding of the interactions that go on between particles ejected from the sun, our planet and its radiation belts. Particles from the sun are trapped in the radiation belts and can stay there or be lost into space, this can therefore change the size and strength of the belts, the payloads launched with the balloons detect the particles that are lost from the radiation belt and get through into the earths atmosphere.

Studying this can help better understand how the radiation belt works, why it fluctuates and how it might react when events like coronal mass ejections occur. These are when the sun spews out huge amounts of energy that can cause problems ranging from shutting down the electronics on satellites to knocking out electrical distribution networks on earth. If they can let me know when to set my alarm to get up for the Aurora Australis this winter that’d be cool too.

Antarctica is a good launching site for the balloons because of the circumpolar winds that sweep round the continent. Send the balloons up and they will be carried round the continent at high altitudes.  This summer ten balloons  and their payloads were launched from Halley and ten more from Sanae, a South African Antarctic base. After launching balloons in both the north and south polar regions for a number of years this was the last season of launches. At Halley we had Robyn, Mike and Dave setting up their gear, planning for each launch and keeping their fingers crossed for good weather -good being without the high winds that can spoil your day if you’re holding a 30 meter helium balloon, though having the sun out too is an added bonus.


This is Mike and Robyn setting up the connection from the balloon to the payload


The payload, it  measures x-rays  caused by the fast-moving particles. It contains detectors, transmitters and receivers and both a solar PV and battery power supply.


This is the helium supply for the balloons. The amount used in each balloon is pretty impressive!


Me holding down the balloon as it inflates – I was basically ballast for this launch!


Christoph starting to inflate


Here we go, Jimmy and Stewart the ballast for this one!


As the balloon grows it turns into a weird jelly fish looking thing. Cool though, especially on a nice day!


As it rises in the atmosphere the balloon will get many times larger as the pressure decreases and the helium inside expands


A bit of wind catching this balloon, not want you want really  – an angry giant jellyfish.


The payload shooting upwards in the nice clear sky, wasn’t always like this, sometimes it would disappear into the mist in seconds


But on a good day you can watch it go higher and higher…


and get smaller and smaller…..


Before you celebrate a good launch with a bit of fannying about…..


I’m really glad to have helped out the Barrel team and been a part of what they were doing, a very small part obviously. The stuff they were doing is really interesting. Cheers to Mike, Dave and Robyn. You can find out more about the project here:


I’d also like to say a massive thank you to Robyn who, upon hearing me mention that I was missing trees, went and made me one from copper wire, it’s bloody brilliant!


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