In January 2016, the NASA-funded Gamma-Ray Imager/Polarimeter for Solar flares (GRIPS) telescope landed in the middle of nowhere in Antarctica after completing an unmanned high-altitude balloon mission ... and that's where it sat until last month.
GRIPS was designed and built by the University of California, Berkeley's Space Science Laboratory to study high-energy particles generated by solar flares.
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In January of 2016, the telescope set out on a 12-day mission that would take it from McMurdo Station to half way around the frozen continent propelled by the spiraling polar vortex winds. Suspended by a helium balloon the width of a football field, the telescope reached an altitude of 126,000 ft (38,000 m).
Though small enough to be carried by a balloon, GRIPS had a big job. It was designed to study high-energy particles emitted by solar flares. By floating high above the Earth, it could observe hard X-ray and gamma-ray emissions with three times the resolution of other telescopes to gain clues as to the composition, abundance, and dynamics of solar flare material.
The aim of the mission was to better understand these flares as well as the impact that they can have on the Earth, satellites, radio transmissions, electronics, and even power grids.
During its flight, GRIPS observed 21 relatively low-level solar flares. On January 31, 2016, a radio command instructed the telescope to cut its balloon tether and it then descended by parachute to the ice cap in the Queen Maud region of Antarctica. Though the data from the telescope was collected after landing, the impending Antarctic winter required the team to abandon recovery operations until January 2017.
Last month, a team set out from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on three one-day flights to the GRIPS landing site, about 500 mi (805 km) away to dig out the telescope and take it back to Amundsen-Scott. It was then dried out, boxed, and sent to McMurdo Station for shipment to the US for evaluation and refurbishment.
Though GRIPS spent a year unattended in the Antarctic wilderness, it's not the first time such a delay has been encountered. Antarctica is one of the harshest environments on Earth and the scientists were relieved to find the telescope in good shape.
"Despite sitting on the ice for a year, no snow had made it into the electronics," says Hazel Bain, a University of California, Berkeley solar physicist on the GRIPS team. "The cryostat instrument, which houses the GRIPS detectors, seemed in great condition, and we're hoping to use some of the instruments again."
The video below outlines the GRIPS mission and recovery.