Balloon Solar Observatory Sunrise Ready To Launch
June 4, 2013

Balloon-Based Solar Observatory Sunrise 2 Ready For Launch

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

The Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany has announced the upcoming launch of its balloon-based solar observatory Sunrise after its team performs one last ground-based test. Outfitted with the biggest solar telescope to have ever left the Earth's surface, a helium-filled balloon will lift Sunrise 2 almost 22 miles above the ground where it will begin observations of the Sun.

Four years ago, Sunrise´s first, six-day journey captured the most detailed images of the Sun ever been taken. However, the Sun was dormant during that initial flight. MPS scientists say Sunrise 2 should capture images of a more active Sun.

"Turbulences in the atmosphere inevitably blur all images of ground-based telescopes,” said Peter Barthol, Sunrise project manager.

Once the craft reaches its cruising height, polar winds will carry Sunrise westward around the North Pole. After six or seven days, Sunrise will parachute to the ground in northern Canada.

"Thanks to the midnight sun in these latitudes north of the Arctic Circle, we will be able to look at the Sun nonstop,” said Barthol.

"Sunrise's first mission showed us, that this ambitious concept works,” said MPS´s Sami K. Solanki, the scientific head of the mission.

The observatory´s first trip allowed solar researchers to resolve the Sun's magnetic building blocks for the first time. Experts believe that learning about the Sun's complex magnetic fields will allow for a deeper understanding of its physical characteristics. These magnetic fields could, for instance, help to explain why the Sun recently varied from its eleven-year cycle, causing a mistimed first launch of Sunrise.

"Four years ago, the Sun showed us quite impressively, that this eleven-year-cycle is just a rough rule of thumb,” said Solanki.

When the Sun is highly active, dark sunspots are highly prevalent across its surface. Its active period is also marked by frequent solar eruptions that emit particles and radiation into space, causing power and communication outages.

MPS scientists had expected the Sun to be highly active during Sunrise´s first launch. However, the Sun remained in an unusually long dormant period. The observatory was unable to observe sunspots or solar eruptions during its maiden voyage.

"For the second mission, this should be quite different," said Barthol, alluding to the Sun´s recent bout of activity that began back in 2010.

The Sunrise team has been preparing for the next launch at ESRANGE Space Center near Kiruna, Sweden since April.

"Two months ago, Sunrise arrived here packed into numerous boxes,” Barthol said. "Since then, we have calibrated the scientific instruments and the telescope, integrated them into the gondola and tested all systems and the software.”

During the preparations, the team has been working on calibrating the telescope to find the Sun and align itself accordingly. After an initial testing using artificial light in a large warehouse, Sunrise tests outside with actual sunlight were successful.

The team still has to test all of Sunrise´s components in one last ground test. After a successful ground rehearsal, Sunrise´s launch will commence once the ideal winds and atmospheric conditions are met.