Scientists are using the unique advantages of Australia’s Red Centre to conduct high-altitude balloon flights for astronomical research. The clear air and low population of central Australia make it the ideal location for balloon-based research.
For most types of astronomy, observatories are typically built high on the tops of mountains, far out in space or high in the sky, dangling from 150-metre-tall helium balloons.
“These balloons fly at 40-kilometre altitude, giving us unfettered views of the cosmos at one per cent of the cost of a satellite,” says Ravi Sood, the director of the Australian Balloon Launching Station at Alice Springs.
Stratospheric balloons have been launched from Australia since the early 1960s, including more than 100 from Alice Springs. Depending on the winds, they drift for one or two days into Western Australia or Queensland, until they are brought back to earth in a safe spot. “Alice Springs is the only site in Australia where we’re allowed to launch these balloons, because of the low population density,” says Ravi. “And from Australia, we get the best view of the most important regions of our Milky Way galaxy.”
These advantages of Alice Springs draw a steady flow of US and European researchers to Australian shores. Current efforts include X-ray and gamma-ray studies of pulsars, black holes and other exotic celestial bodies.
NASA is testing a new super-pressure balloon that will circle the globe several times before landing in Australia again after three months.
PHOTO: A BALLOON LAUNCH AT ALICE SPRINGS. CREDIT: R. SOOD.
School of Physical, Environmental and Mathematical Sciences, University of New South Wales at Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra
Professor Ravi Sood, Tel: +61 (2) 6268 8765, firstname.lastname@example.org, pems.unsw.adfa.edu.au/research/astro.html