Category Archives: Meta

Rebirth

The heart of NCT–its detectors and readout electronics–survived our launch mishap in Alice Springs.  They have been integrated into a new and improved instrument called COSI: the COmpton Spectrometer and Imager.

COSI

COSI during a rollout test in McMurdo.

The COSI team is in Antarctica now preparing for what is hoped to be the first ultra-long duration science flight on a superpressure balloon.  The current generation of students is chronicling their adventures on a new campaign blog

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Postscript

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
–Tennyson, “Ulysses

With the completion of the NASA report on the balloon launch mishap, the last chapters of our Australian saga have been completed.  The report has a hugely detailed accounting of all that happened that day, but I can at last share the missing piece of this blog’s narrative.  The immediate cause of the mishap was a mechanical failure in the launch crane’s release mechanism, which prevented the balloon and our instrument from lifting off of the crane at the proper time.  As the crew positioned to abort, the balloon pulled our instrument off of the crane.  The whole world saw the consequences.

After extensive review, NASA has resumed regular balloon operations with a re-engineered release mechanism and improved launch procedures; two scientific payloads were successfully launched in Antarctica in December.  The HERO team will return to Alice Springs early this year to complete their delayed campaign.

As for NCT, upon its return to the U.S. we were pleased to find that despite the extensive damage to the gondola, the instrument’s key components were remarkably unscathed.  The detectors, electronics, and shields all appear operable.  We hope to rebuild, using our experience to make improvements where possible, and to fly again someday soon.  For now, though, NCT’s future remains uncertain.

I won’t be part of that campaign, though.  I’m finishing up my PhD this spring and looking towards new opportunities.  Still, I will always be grateful for the experiences I had—and the people I shared them with—while I was gone ballooning.

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond

Apologies for the temporary blog outage–the media coverage was intense and the attention it brought too personal for my taste.  Hopefully we can stay up and running now.

We’ve packed everything up, provisionally.  Most everyone from our team has left now.  I took a few days away up in muggy Darwin.  It was a pleasant diversion to see some colors other than red!  Some pictures below.

In the Dark

(Posting has been more sporadic in the last couple of days because of problems with Internet access.  I hope to sort that out soon, but in any case I probably won’t post every day going forward unless there’s something interesting to share.)

This morning we had a power outage in the hangar, which delayed but did not divert the first significantly bad news of the campaign:  one of NCT’s nine detectors didn’t cope well with the long journey from Berkeley.  Jane, Steve, and Alan did lots of tests, but it appears the problem is inside the cryostat–perhaps a damaged connection.  Since the detectors are kept under vacuum at 85 Kelvin, there’s no chance to make a repair in the field.  We’re all pretty disappointed about the loss of sensitivity, and it’s frustrating not being able to shed more light on the root cause.  We’ll try a few more tests in the days ahead to see if we can learn more.

Looks like bad news.

The new battery boxes.

We press on, though.  Jim and Zach have nearly completed assembling our new battery boxes; all that remains is the wiring.  Zach and I also prepared the card cages for insertion into the electronics bay.  To ensure the electronics can exhaust their heat in flight, we’ve been applying lots of white heatsinking compound, known only semi-affectionately as “thermal gunk” for its sticky ubiquity.  By the end of the day, the card cages were in and Alan, Jane, and Zach had connected the signal cables.

Zach cleans off some old thermal gunk.

Routing the harness.

Today was Jim’s last day working with us–he’s going to go walkabout a bit in the outback before heading out through Sydney.  To celebrate the trip, he and I went out for dinner and tried some Australian game–kangaroo, emu, barramundi, and camel.  All of it was excellent, but the kangaroo in particular was tender and had great flavor.

I've been accused of running a food blog here sometimes...

What’s Next for NCT?

After our very successful Spring 2009 flight from Ft. Sumner, New Mexico, the NCT group is turning its attention toward a more ambitious goal: a long-duration, round-the-world flight from Alice Springs, Australia.  The southern hemisphere launch site will allow us to observe the Galactic Center, which is rich in gamma-ray sources, and the long flight will enable us to make detailed maps of diffuse nuclear line emission in the galaxy.  With its wide-field imaging capability and great energy resolution, this is the science that NCT was designed to do, and we’re excited by the opportunity to push the envelope of discovery.

There are launch opportunities in Australia as early as Spring 2010, and we’re already working to figure out how to make that happen.  A two to three week flight from another continent is no minor logistical undertaking, though, so we’ll have to be smart in our preparation!  Thanks to our earlier-than-expected flight and the good condition of the instrument on recovery, we’re already well on our way.  Still, we have some improvements we’d like to make in the meantime.  NCT ’09 only flew 10 detectors of a possible 12, so it would be good to be able to fly the full complement.  We hope to make the solar panels lighter and more robust.  We’ll sort out the quirkiness of the rotor.  Finally, there are a number of bars on the gondola frame which bent on landing and will have to be remade.

We’ll be busy looking at the great data we obtained in our Ft. Sumner flight, too.  I have a big pile of efficiency calibration data to reduce and will take some polarization calibrations.  From flight, we’ll need to verify our backgrounds, and then we can start doing imaging and spectroscopy of our two sources, the Crab Nebula and Cas A.  We didn’t get quite enough exposure time on the Crab to expect to measure its polarization, but we should set a solid upper limit and learn some meaningful things about the analysis.

This blog will probably be quiet for a bit, but when the next campaign begins I’ll be back with updates from Down Under!  Until then…

Wrapping Up

A few pictures and notes from the final stages of the balloon campaign…

Recovery

NCT landed upright on a steep hillside several hard miles from the nearest road, so CSBF’s normal recovery trucks were unable to reach it.  Thankfully, CSBF was able to locate a heavy-lift helicopter to extract the gondola, so McBride, Daniel, and Zhong-Kai worked with CSBF to remove the heavy batteries and solar panels so the gondola could be lifted out.  Daniel’s great pictures of the operation are here and here.  The landing bent several bars on the gondola and squished CSBF’s communication electronics pretty badly, but our detectors and electronics made it through intact.  Since the gondola landed upright, the detectors even stayed cold, as the liquid nitrogen didn’t leak out!

Packing

We launched on a Sunday and landed on Monday; due to the difficult recovery, NCT didn’t return to Ft. Sumner until Friday afternoon.  By that point we were all itching to head home, so after some frenzied bubble-wrapping and boxing we left the hangar for good at 5:00 pm on Saturday.

NCT's triumphant return!

NCT's triumphant return!

Unwrapping...

Unwrapping...

The skeletal gondola.

The skeletal gondola.

Ready to go home...

Ready to go home...

The engineers have left the building.

The engineers have left the building.

Returning to Berkeley

Daniel and I drove the two Budget trucks back to Berkeley over Sunday to Tuesday.  It was a pretty drive along 40, with lots of great Southwestern scenery and nostalgic Route 66 kitsch.  Highlights included stops at the Petrified Forest and the Meteor Crater.  Daniel got a flat tire and I saw a scary accident, but on the whole it was a smooth trip back.

On the road!

On the road!

DSCF6366

Holbrook, AZ.

Holbrook, AZ.

Old 66 Trading Post and Independent Baptist Church

Old 66 Trading Post and Independent Baptist Church

The Painted Desert

The Painted Desert

"Teepees," Petrified Forest

"Teepees," Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest

DSCF6468

DSCF6484

"Sleep in a Wigwam!"

"Sleep in a Wigwam!"

Lunch at a great 1930s railroad hotel, Winslow, AZ

Lunch at a great 1930s railroad hotel, Winslow, AZ

Meteor Crater!

Meteor Crater!

View from the Meteor Crater towards Flagstaff, AZ

View from the Meteor Crater towards Flagstaff, AZ

DSCF6561

Welcome to California!

Welcome to California!

Garlic trucks!

Garlic trucks!

Glad to be home.

Glad to be home.

Final Reflections

NCT's flight path.

NCT's flight path.

With some lucky wind shifts, NCT was able to ride what could have been a short 8-hour flight into one of the longest flights ever launched from Ft. Sumner.  We had some challenges with our pointing and power systems in flight, but problems are to be expected in any experimental program of this size.  We got a lot of great data and have improvements in mind.  Despite the difficult recovery, NCT came back in great shape, and we’re already preparing for the next flight.

On the whole, our time in New Mexico was a great success.  Hard work, experience, and plenty of fortuity produced a nearly ideal outcome.  Along the way, we learned some things about ballooning and plenty about ourselves, and hopefully soon we’ll dig into the data and learn a bit more about the universe.  It’s good to be home, but I’m glad to have shared this experience with such talented colleagues.

We are tremendously grateful for the support of all of the CSBF personnel.  Particular thanks are due to Bill Stepp, CSBF’s head of operations, and Frank Candelaria, the crew chief, for their calm and capable management.  Speaking for myself, I was genuinely inspired by the professionalism, skill, and good humor exhibited by the CSBF personnel throughout the campaign.

Hello, World!

The trucks are already on the road, so it’s high time I got this started!  I plan to chronicle NCT‘s Spring 2009 balloon campaign in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico.