One giant balloon, floating in the Antarctic sky


I’m more than happy to have met this absolute legend, meet my new friend Cesar Villasana – who is launching NASA’s balloons from Antarctica into space. But let me tell you more about it.

After a long day at McMurdo, people like to gather in one of three local pubs. While some of them are more like an American sports bar, the ‘Coffee House’ is the most traditional Antarctic pub. Wooden sleds are nailed to the ceiling, maps of unknown areas decorate the walls and the smell of Shakelton’s Whiskey fills the air. It is here where modern explorers mingle and talk about why they came to Antarctica.

Cesar is here to loft a balloon-borne instrument named SuperTIGER high into Antarctica’s sky. They are looking for high-energy particles, remainders from the Big Bang, to find out how cosmic rays attain speeds up to the speed of light. “Why is it called Super ?”, was my first question. “Because it’s a souped-up version of the Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder (TIGER), that we have used in the past.” Cesar is responsible for the separation of the parachute and the payload. “Why is there a parachute on a balloon ?”, was my second question.

“It is because the parachute might drag the payload along Earth’s surface after it has landed, therefore the explosion.”, answered Cesar and took as sip of his beer. “There is an explosion ?!?” This was the moment when I wanted to learn all about it. The payload with the SuperTIGER instrument hangs on a parachute, which itself hangs below the giant balloon – at launch the entire thing is 856 feet (261 m) tall. It then floats for 53 days and circumnavigates Antarctica about 3 times. Circular winds aloft keep it to the continent, but the rotation is at first clockwise up to 80 000 feet (25 km) and then slowly turning around to a counterclockwise movement with the winds higher up in our atmosphere. At 127 000 feet (39 km), the balloon has reached its maximum altitude. That’s nearly four times the typical cruising altitude of commercial airliners ! At this height, the balloon is 460 feet (140 m) across. And if you think it would be fun to read now that the balloon pops, be ready for a surprise… now is the moment, when they separate the payload from the balloon and trigger a rocket on the payload to shoot the SuperTIGER instrument even higher into space ! Surprised ? I was !


In the end, the payload is slowly coming back down with its parachute to the Earth’s surface where it is recovered. In the past, Cesar was testing this equipment in Hawaii. “Where did you like it more, here in Antarctica or in Hawaii ?” Cesar was honest, smiled and said he likes the cocktails in Hawaii  better. A big thanks to Cesar for teaching me about balloons and especially for sending me these breathtaking pictures ! Keep up the good work friend.

If you have enjoyed reading Cesar’s story, you are probably interested in Alessandro’s story as well. Meeting spaced-out people


This entry was posted in Thwaites_2019. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to One giant balloon, floating in the Antarctic sky

  1. urack says:

    Amazing what can be done with a bit of brainpower and funding 🙂 Great article by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

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