owering 15 stories above the Antarc-tic landscape, the white balloon castsa long, dark shadow across the snow.
The ground crew makes nal preparations forlaunch, lling the balloon with helium and secur
ing its cargo. In one uid motion, the workers freethe balloon from the Earth. Rising into the air, itbecomes a fading silhouette in a cloudless sky.Meanwhile, millions of kilometers away, thefocus of this launch begins its own journey. Agust of high-energy particles blows out of the sunand into the solar system. A few of these particlesmake a beeline for Earth. The balloon expands in the thin air of the up
-per atmosphere. The sun’s warm light charges the
solar panels, giving life to the scientic instru
ments hanging in a box of insulating foam below the balloon. Winds catch the large surface of the
balloon like a sail, blowing it along its two-week
circumnavigation of Antarctica.Earth’s magnetic eld snatches an electron from
the sun’s outburst and throws it into a turbulent
sea of particles that surrounds our planet. Spi
raling wildly, the electron follows a suicidal pathtoward certain destruction. With a burst of light,the electron crashes into the atmosphere. Its fatetriggers a spark of electrical current inside one of the scientic instruments—unveiling new details
about how the sun can disturb the delicate cocoon within which our planet resides.
This is a new NASA mission called BARREL.In a series of several dozen ights in the Antarcticsummers of 2012-13 and 2013-14, BARREL willexplore the invisible world of the heavens that af
fects nearly every component of our modern lives.
Its goal is to better understand the dangerous solar
particles that engulf our planet, especially dur
ing the sun’s piques of violence. The mission also will break new ground for NASA, which typically funds big single space projects, rather than a suiteof smaller, mass-produced payloads.
“We’re vulnerable to the space environment.
Understanding the dynamics and how that affectsour technology is becoming more and more im
portant for modern society,” says physicist RobynMillan of Dartmouth College, BARREL’s princi
pal investigator. “We need to understand the [dy
namics] well enough to make better predictions.”
Living with a Star
Electronics and people have become insepara
-ble. Air travel, power grids, satellite television, and
cellular networks may seem robust, but they are allsensitive to the high-energy particles shot from the
sun at a million tons per second.
“Disturbances in Earth’s magnetic eld act likea giant particle accelerator, so some of the par
ticles end up moving very, very fast—almost atthe speed of light,” says David Smith, professorof physics at the University of California, SantaCruz, and researcher on the BARREL mission.“[They’re] very penetrating, and enough of themcan do a lot of harm to a person. But they canalso harm electronics.” The radiation from an intense solar stormshouldn’t make you run for a lead umbrella. Solarstorms inict their most damage electronically. In1962, Telestar-1 became the rst satellite casualty from a solar outburst, short-circuited by the so
-lar wind. A 1989 event triggered a massive power
outage in Quebec, affecting millions of residentsand costing billions of dollars to repair. The most violent eruptions from the sun in recorded his
tory, if they were to happen today, could do more
than $1 trillion in damage to the world’s electronic
infrastructure.“The potential for these geomagnetic storms todamage systems is greater than [ever],” says Brett Anderson, a Dartmouth College graduate student working on BARREL. “Almost on a daily basis,our society is putting more and more satellites into
space. The more assets we send into space, themore important it becomes to understand space
weather and to be able to predict it.”Earth has a natural defense from these damag
-ing particles: the magnetosphere, a donut-shaped
blanket wrapped around the planet. Earth’s mag
netic eld directs particles—such as electrons car
ried by the solar winds—into the magnetosphere’sradiation belts, like rainwater owing into a reser
voir. Without the magnetosphere, harmful solarparticles would bombard Earth’s surface.
Understanding how these solar particles behave
near Earth is critical. “These electrons are part of
our environment, so we’d like to understand what
processes inuence their presence, their num
bers and their energies,” says BARREL scientistMichael McCarthy, a professor of physics at theUniversity of Washington.
Into the Radiation Belts
Despite the impact of solar activity on soci
An artist’s rendition of Earth’s magnetosphere. Earth’s magnetosphere protects our planet from charged particles that blow out of the sun. The particles can cause damage to satellites and other electronics.