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High-Gain Antenna Speeds Up Data Delivery for Balloons
April 10, 2006
 

Cream 2 and scientific balloon ready for launch in Antarctica
Researchers who use balloons to carry their experiments to the uppermost reaches of the Earth's atmosphere now have the means to retrieve their data at greatly increased rates in near real-time­in sharp contrast to what was available to them before.

The Wallops Flight Facility has developed a new high gain antenna that uses the Agency's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system to transmit scientific and housekeeping data in real-time at 100 kilobits per second. This represents a more than 10-fold increase over data rates previously achieved using omni-directional antennas.

The 18-inch flat plate array antenna already has flown on the two Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) payloads launched from McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The experiment, a joint effort involving several U.S. and foreign universities, measures the spectra of cosmic-ray nuclei from helium to iron. The most recent mission ended January 15 after the balloon spent 28 days aloft.

"The researchers got their data immediately and we were able to monitor our systems continuously and respond immediately," said Wallops Project Manager Linda Thompson, referring to the speed by which researchers received their data during CREAM 2.

At 100 kilobits per second, she likened the situation to what people experience when they migrate from dial-up to broadband. During the CREAM launch, data was transmitted to TDRS, which then sent it to White Sands, N.M.

From there, it went to the Operations Control Center in Palestine, Texas, the Engineering Support Center at Wallops Island, Va., and on to the Science Operations Center at the University of Maryland in College Park.

The antenna has a bright future, Thompson said. "It definitely could be used on aircraft." Future enhancements will increase its data rate to upwards of 1200 kilobits per second.