Sunrise II Pre-launch Update

Saturday, June 8, 2013

On June 8, 2009 the Sunrise balloon-borne telescope was successfully launched from the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, Sweden aboard the HAO-developed gondola. Sunrise was conceived with the goal of observing magnetic structures in the Sun's surface; features such as sunspots in unprecedented detail which help us to understand the processes responsible for the formation and eventual disappearance of these enigmatic solar phenomena. In order to meet this goal the data must be collected from above the Earth's turbulent atmosphere.

Sunrise II Gondola Photograph
Sunrise II Gondola Photograph

After floating westward through the Earth's stratosphere for five days during the quietest period of solar magnetism in nearly a century the gondola, with instruments fully intact, parachuted safely down to Earth, landing on Sommerset Island in Canada’s Northwest Passage. Almost two terabytes of data were collected during the first flight and those images of the Sun helped to understand the relationship between magnetic fields and the brightness of the magnetic structures in the ultraviolet; a critical study that is helping us to understand the impact of solar ultraviolet radiation on the chemistry of the polar stratosphere.

Now flash-forward four years: it is June 4, 2013. Three HAO employees (Greg Card, Michael Knoelker and Alice Lecinski) have returned to Kiruna with the gondola for a second science flight of Sunrise. This time the payload will fly near the activity maximum of solar cycle 24 and get a glimpse at those sunspots which eluded it in 2009. This is an important and exciting factor for the Sunrise II mission, a factor that particularly excites HAO PI, Michael Knoelker and one which he feels will provide interesting results that the general public will find of interest. Alice, Greg and Michael have been joined this week by HAO Scientist, Rebecca Centeno-Elliot and three students: Courtney Peck from CU, Boulder, Piyush Agrawal from the Indian School of Mines, India, and Justus Brosche from TU Darmstadt, Germany. They will all help in the Sunrise data center.

The gondola’s 4-6 day flight (depending on stratospheric winds) will take it soaring from Sweden over Norway, the north Atlantic, Greenland and finally to remote Canadian Islands in the Arctic Circle where we hope it will make a soft landing (fingers and other limbs crossed). Greg Card will leave Kiruna shortly after launch and scramble to arctic Canada to lead the recovery crew that will lift the gondola by helicopter before being shipped back to Boulder.

The countdown is on for the launch of Sunrise II which, if everything goes well with the weather, could happen as early as today, June 5th. If you watched the 2009 launch, you know that it is both a breathtaking and nail biting experience. Follow us on FaceBook (High Altitude Observatory) for a link to the live video feed at Esrange. Back here in Boulder, we wait patiently; excited and proud of our crew who pulled this all off in record time (due to late funding decisions), with the same skill, professionalism and high standard of excellence we all expect from this crew!

The Sunrise reflight project is a scientific collaboration between HAO, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Kiepenheuer Institute for Solar Physics, the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, the Lockheed-Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Esrange Space Centre. HAO’s portion of this project (the responsibility of designing and building a gondola able to withstand stratospheric stresses, to safely transport, protect and continuously point the delicate Sunrise telescope at the Sun) was funded by a NASA, low-cost access to space award, and the Max Planck Institute.