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Airy studies

FOTO: Frank Jakobsen

Airy studies

International scientists are planning to release an 800,000-cubic-meter helium balloon to study the edge of the known universe.

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Longyearbyen is well-known as a host for more and more researchers who are utilizing the city's unique position and weather conditions. Two of them are Silvia Masi and Steven Peterzén, who are directing and organizing a project known as Olympo. This week they are hoping to send up a balloon 100,000 cubic meters in size and within a month they are planning to send up another eight times as large. The balloons will the wind coming around the North Pole to travel across Greenland, Canada, Russia and Scandinavia at about 38 to 39 kilometers in altitude. After this they will pass over Svalbard again and the journey will end in northern Canada. The journey will take about 10 to 14 days and is powered by solar panels.

Bigger than ever
The two researchers are receiving help from up to 20 colleagues from at least four different countries, who will use the balloon journey to collect data from the atmosphere. Among the scientific instruments to be included in the balloon, which will be unmanned and remote-controlled, is a telescope that includes a 2.6-meter long mirror. This is the largest telescope mirror that has been part of such a balloon trip. The total payload will weigh more than two tons.

"This year's balloon, and it was released in 2009, is the largest balloons that are released in Norway," said Peterzén, the project's flight coordinator. "In the largest we could have room for the whole Colosseum."
"Or a football field," his colleague added.

Svalbard's best for balloons
Peterzén, who has worked on scientific projects involving balloons for more than 20 years, said Longyearbyen is the best present location for such releases because the city already has much of the infrastructure and facilities required.

"The release will be visible from Longyearbyen, but we are too dependent on wind and other conditions to give an exact time – or date – for the release," he said.

Masi, from La Sapienza University in Rome, is coordinating the research work to be done in connection with the flight.

"We will use the balloon journey to see the edge of the known universe," she said. "We will look at what happened 10 billion years ago."

"The known universe is about 14 billion years old. By looking at what has happened between then and now we can learn more about the origin of the universe."

Pick-up in Canada 
Some of the information from payload in the balloon collects is sent directly to the researchers, but most of it is stored on board. Researchers must therefore eventually retrieve the payload after it is sent down over the northern part of Canada.

The payload is equipped with instruments that show where the devices are located, so researchers will know where to look.

"It will probably be a camping trip for me to find the payload," Peterzén said, laughing.

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