A science team in Antarctica is preparing to loft a balloon-borne instrument to collect information on cosmic rays, high-energy particles from beyond the solar system that enter Earth’s atmosphere every moment of every day.
The instrument, called the Super Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder (SuperTIGER), is designed to study rare heavy nuclei, which hold clues about where and how cosmic rays attain speeds up to nearly the speed of light.
The previous flight of SuperTIGER lasted 55 days, setting a record for the longest flight of any heavy-lift scientific balloon.
The most common cosmic ray particles are protons or hydrogen nuclei, making up roughly 90 percent, followed by helium nuclei (8 percent) and electrons (1 percent). The remainder contains the nuclei of other elements, with dwindling numbers of heavy nuclei as their mass rises.
With SuperTIGER, researchers are looking for the rarest of the rare — so-called ultra-heavy cosmic ray nuclei beyond iron, from cobalt to barium.
Over the past two decades, evidence accumulated from detectors on NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer satellite and SuperTIGER’s predecessor, the balloon-borne TIGER instrument, has allowed scientists to work out a general picture of cosmic ray sources.
Roughly 20 percent of cosmic rays were thought to arise from massive stars and supernova debris, while 80 percent came from interstellar dust and gas with chemical quantities similar to what’s found in the solar system.
On Aug. 17, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and the National Science Foundation’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory detected the first light and gravitational waves from crashing neutron stars.
Later observations by the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes indicate that large amounts of heavy elements were formed in the event.