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Balloon mission chosen for NASA Pioneers program

3 February 2021
Stephanie Wissel

Stephanie Wissel, assistant professor of physics and of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, and her collaborators working on the Antarctic balloon mission, PUEO, have been selected for the new NASA Pioneers program. The Pioneers program, which started in 2020, is intended to provide opportunities for early-to-mid-career researchers to propose innovative experiments and lead space or suborbital science investigations for the first time. The program promotes compelling astrophysics science at a lower cost using smaller hardware than missions in the larger NASA Explorers Program.

PUEO, which stands for Payload for Ultrahigh Energy Observation, is one of four small-scale astrophysics missions chosen by NASA for further concept development. These missions enable new platforms for exploring cosmic phenomena such as galaxy evolution, exoplanets, high-energy neutrinos, and neutron star mergers.

“These concept studies bring innovative, out-of-the-box thinking to the problem of how to do high-impact astrophysics experiments on a small budget,” said Thomas H. Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Each of the proposed experiments would do something no other NASA telescope or mission can do, filling important gaps in our understanding of the universe as a whole.”

Planned for flight in 2024, PUEO is a balloon mission designed to launch from Antarctica that will detect signals from energetic neutrinos, particles that contain valuable clues about the distant astrophysical processes, including the origin of the most energetic cosmic rays in the universe. They can also inform our understanding of active galaxies and neutron star mergers, among other extreme astrophysical environments. Neutrinos travel across the universe undisturbed, carrying information about events billions of light years away. PUEO would be the most sensitive survey of cosmic ultra-high energy neutrinos ever conducted. The principal investigator is Abigail Vieregg at the University of Chicago.

In her research, Wissel uses cosmic neutrinos to open a new window into the universe, informing both our understanding of astrophysics and of fundamental physics at the highest energy scales. Wissel’s goal is to discover the first neutrinos at high energies, greater than 100 PeV. She uses radio detection techniques, which include the ANITA and PUEO experiments, using NASA’s long-duration balloons; the BEACON concept, using mountaintop radio interferometers; and the radio arrays ARA and RNO-G, buried in ice in Antarctica and Greenland, respectively, and serving as pathfinders towards the larger IceCube-Gen2 radio array at the South Pole.

Wissel was honored with an NSF CAREER award, the NSF's most prestigious award in support of early career faculty, in 2018. Her research has been published in scientific journals including Nature, The Astrophysical Journal, the American Journal of Physics, Astroparticle Physics, and Physical Reviews Letters.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Wissel was an assistant professor of physics at the California Polytechnic State University from 2015 to 2019. She was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 2012 to 2015 and at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory from 2010 to 2012. Wissel earned doctoral and master’s degrees in physics at the University of Chicago in 2010 and 2005, respectively. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Dallas in 2004.