Carried above the continent of Antarctica by a circular wind pattern, the Gamma-Ray Imager/Polarimeter for Solar Flares (GRIPS) was launched by NASA and the Univ. of California at Berkeley earlier this week.
The instrument is meant to study the high-energy radiation released by solar flares.
“GRIPS sees this emission three times more sharply than any previous instrument,” said Albert Shih, a project scientist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We’ll be able to pinpoint more precisely the times and locations that produce gamma rays.”
Solar flares are explosions that occur on the sun when the energy stored in a magnetic field is released. This occurs when magnetic fields suddenly realign. The realignment generates strong electric fields, which produce a swath of charged particles. “In the ionized gas of the sun’s atmosphere, this process sends electrons and ions flying at speeds approaching the speed of light, causing them to release high-energy gamma rays,” according to NASA.
The GRIPS instrument is carried by a helium-filled balloon, which is roughly the size of a football field. It was launched during the Antarctic summer, a time period that features relatively calm skies for the region. Further, the period is defined by several weeks of 24/7 sunlight, which gives the research team ample amounts of data collection time.
Prior to its launch, the GRIPS instrument was tested over a three-month period. The team hopes the balloon will fly for between 14 and 55 days.
Led by the Berkeley team, the team consists of members from Orbital ATK and is executed by NASA’s Columbia Balloon Scientific Facility, which has launched over 1,700 scientific balloons.