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Balloon tour of Mars?
Mission from Svalbard seeks similarities of planets' polar areas
A 120-meter-wide balloon carrying radar and other scientific equipment lifts off July 1 from Longyearbyen, beginning a four-day journey across Greenland to take subsurface readings of Arctic terrain. Researchers with the Italian-led Sounding Radar (SoRa) project hope the data provides clues about the polar regions of Mars, where similar measurements have been taken. Photo by Andreas Umbreit.

Don't look for balloons over Mars anytime soon, but Svalbard is offering researchers wanting to know more about the Red Planet the next best thing.

A 120-meter balloon carrying a radar system to analyze Arctic terrain completed a four-day voyage from Longyearbyen to Baffin Island, Canada, on Saturday. Studying Mars typically involves telescopes and rockets directed away from Earth, but those launching the balloon said there may be much to learn by looking down – way down, as much as three kilometers beneath the surface.

"It is a situation that could be similar to the Martian poles," said Enrico Flamini, head of universe observation for Italy's space agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana, which developed and coordinated the project known as SoRa (Sounding Radar). "We have very good information from the Martian poles....In science you always need to make comparisons. The only thing we can do is take known equipment and take known measurements."

The ballon flight, delayed about a month due to high winds during the scheduled launch, coincides with the publication of findings from the Phoenix Mars Mission, which generated widespread headlines worldwide when scientists declared the planet had Earth-like climate cycles, snow and perhaps life. The Phoenix lander spent five months analyzing soil samples and other data in the Martian Arctic, with 35 scientists from six countries co-authoring four papers in the journal Science.

Flamini said he hopes his mission can help provide information about the type and source of water bodies on Mars by comparing the balloon radar's readings to comparable Martian satellite data.

"The main payload of the SoRa mission consists of a very faithful reproduction of the SHARAD radar currently on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter," he said. "This is a radar able to penetrate the underground sound. This way you can acquire a set of reference data that can compare with those obtained by exploring the surface of the Red Planet. "

It's unclear if the Martian radar detected water or ice, which SoRa data may be able to provide clues toward, Flamini said.

The Phoenix Mars Mission transmits images from the Arctic region of Mars during its five-month mission in 2008, which officials said revealed Earth-like climate patterns. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The SoRa balloon launched from Longyearbyen at about 2 a.m. Wednesday, reaching an altitude of 35 kilometers. The primary focus was radar readings taken above Greenland, with the unit collecting about 90GB of data that a team of Italian scientists will analyze now that the unit has been recovered, said Stefania Mattei, a designer of the system.

"There's not enough bandwidth to monitor it in real time," she said, adding the small payload capacity didn't allow any equipment capable of such transmissions.

The wait may affect the readings available, Mattei noted in a follow-up e-mail after the mission.

"We experienced higher temperature than expected, but at the moment we cannot tell what is the effect on collected data," she wrote. "When we will have a look at the on-board memory we can tell something more."

Researchers hope to begin analyzing the data by mid-August and publish the results about a month later, Mattei wrote.

A secondary mission of SoRa was measuring the thickness of Greenland's ice sheets to study the impact of global warming. Numerous similar studies have been done recently in the Arctic, including one published last week stating the sea ice between Svalbard and Greenland is at its their lowest level in 800 years, but Flamini said the balloon's readings will help establish a more complete portrait.

"Crossing Greenland we can measure the entire thickness of the ice," he said.

Three minor experiments were also part of the flight, according to the Italian space agency: an instrument for capturing interplanetary dust in Earth’s troposphere, a prototype accelerometer for a mission that will study the planet Mercury and a sensor for detecting gamma rays. The minor missions got a boost from southerly winds that convinced the SoRa team to extend the flight until about 12:30 p.m. Saturday to the 77th parallel on Baffin Island, rather than the 80th parallel in Greenland, according to a statement from the space agency.

Mattei, who along with other team leaders endured a lengthy and futile wait during the planned launch date, was also among the members who missed the eventual sendoff. But despite the delays and in-flight difficulties, "we are ready to repeat such exiting and human experience."

"What I personally found exiting was the human experience, above all," she wrote. "There were different teams involved in different kind of things - launch, gondola, payloads, telemetries - but we worked in good harmony. And this is not easy. There were of course moments of discouragement, especially when we had to wait for good weather day, but the harmony helped us a lot and encouraged us to go ahead."


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