Space

Solar telescope recovered after a year on ice

The GRIPS telescope parachuted to the ground and sat on the ice for an entire year
The GRIPS telescope parachuted to the ground and sat on the ice for an entire year
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Members of the GRIPS balloon team take their first steps on the Antarctic ice 
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Members of the GRIPS balloon team take their first steps on the Antarctic ice 
A trio of flags marks the center of the GRIPS balloon launch pad
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A trio of flags marks the center of the GRIPS balloon launch pad
GRIPS hangar opened for testing
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GRIPS hangar opened for testing
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McMurdo Station, where GRIPS was based
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McMurdo Station, where GRIPS was based
Members of the GRIPS team and a crew from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, guide the payload out of the hangar for a pointing test 
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Members of the GRIPS team and a crew from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, guide the payload out of the hangar for a pointing test 
 GRIPS and its next-door neighbor, the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory
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 GRIPS and its next-door neighbor, the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory
Nicole Duncan, a graduate student studying space physics at the University of California, Berkeley, stands next to the GRIPS payload 
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Nicole Duncan, a graduate student studying space physics at the University of California, Berkeley, stands next to the GRIPS payload 
Launching GRIPS by balloon
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Launching GRIPS by balloon
The GRIPS payload launched into the sky on a giant balloon on Jan. 18, 2016
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The GRIPS payload launched into the sky on a giant balloon on Jan. 18, 2016
The GRIPS telescope parachuted to the ground and sat on the ice for an entire year
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The GRIPS telescope parachuted to the ground and sat on the ice for an entire year
Inflating the GRIPS balloon
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Inflating the GRIPS balloon
Laying out the launching balloon
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Laying out the launching balloon
GRIPS being positioned for flight
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GRIPS being positioned for flight

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.

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.

GRIPS being positioned for flight
GRIPS being positioned for flight

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.

Inflating the GRIPS balloon
Inflating the GRIPS balloon

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.

Source: NASA

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