News from the Frontiers of Cosmology: A companion to the book The Edge of Physics
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Antimatter over Antarctica: Video

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WHEN IT COMES TO EXTREME PHYSICS, it doesn’t get better than the long duration balloon flights from McMurdo, Antarctica. These balloons carry experiments to the upper stratosphere, from where experiments study everything from primordial antimatter to the cosmic microwave background, which is the radiation left over from the big bang.

Just some astonishing facts about the balloons:

Payload weight: About 2 tons

Balloon fabric: About 0.0008 inches thick (or thin!), like a very thin sandwich wrap

Balloon fabric weight: Despite the thin fabric, it weights almost 2 tons itself

Helium: At full cruising altitude of about 40 kilometres, the helium expands to about 1 million cubic metres. It takes an hour to fill the balloon, even with high-pressure compressed helium tanks.

Rate of ascent: About 500 feet per minute

Balloon size: At cruising altitude, when the helium has expanded fully, the balloon is about 400 feet across. Can look like half the size of the full moon from the ground.

Remember, the balloon is flown from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, so the crew has to work in sub-zero temperatures, to do all the wiring.

Here’s a video of the balloon launch (courtesy of Ryan Miller and Jessica Reynolds, who filmed it for Polar Palooza):

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