High schoolers totally shred on a high-altitude balloon

By Phil Plait | July 25, 2012 10:42 am

I’ve written about high-altitude balloon science before: small weather balloons can carry scientific payloads up to heights of 30 kilometers or more, where they can detect cosmic phenomena normally blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere. Experiments with balloons are relatively inexpensive and don’t take vast amounts of time and labor to do, so one of the very cool things about them is that they can be done by young kids in school.

As part of Project SMART, a team of high school students along with mentors from the University of New Hampshire recently sent such a balloon up to 32.2 kilometers – 20 miles! While that’s not technically into space (which begins officially at a height of 100 km), it’s still high enough that the sky is black, and the view of Earth is simply breath-taking:

[Click to montgolfierenate.]

On board was a Geiger counter to measure cosmic rays (subatomic particles zipping through space), as well as a pink Styrofoam dish-shaped re-entry vehicle which returned the package safely to the ground; they say this is the first time that’s been done in the small-balloon community. Nifty.

Now I’ll note that heights like this are often reached in these flights, so that picture by itself – while beautiful – is not really why I’m posting this. This picture is why:

The camera they flew up with their experiment happened to catch the balloon just as it burst! The balloons are designed to do that; once they get to maximum altitude they pop and the payload drops back to Earth and can be recovered (otherwise the balloon would stay afloat for a long time, and the experiment lost as it drifted away to parts unknown). There’s also a neat picture of the Earth in the background with bits of shredded balloon falling down, too.

Of course, that’s not the only reason I posted this. Science comes in many degrees of difficulty, from complex international experiments that cost billions, to do-it-yourself packages that are affordable to many high schools. Ballooning is an amazing gateway to science, and I encourage any teachers reading this to look into it! Check out Project SMART and see if this is something you can do, too.

Image credit: UNH and Lou Broad

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MORE ABOUT: balloon

Comments (15)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    Well, that burst their balloon! ūüėČ

  2. Georg

    [Click to montgolfierenate.]

    Better “charlesierate” I think they used a
    Charliere, not a Mongolfiere.

  3. Jason

    Cool burst pictures!!! Here is a great website where teachers can buy turn-key weather balloon kits and receive training to launch balloon missions just like this one. http://www.StratoStar.net

  4. Gr8GooglyMoogly

    You keep mentioning this Cosmic Ray guy. I wonder, does he play the Theremin?

  5. VinceRN

    I hope to do this with my kids when they are a bit older. A balloon, a camera, a radio and some sensors, not out of reach even for individuals to try.

  6. Crudely Wrott

    Wow. The balloon shredded fractally!

    Nice job, kids. Very nice.

  7. Scottynuke

    *letting my Wildcat flag fly* Yay UNH mentors!!! :-)

  8. Morphos

    Ionizing radiation is nice. The boojum is fast neutrons. High altitude is loaded with them from cosmic ray spallation of gas atoms. Fast neutrons are biologically nasty (and C-14 sweet).

  9. MadScientist

    The bursting of the balloon is accidental (but desired) rather than deliberate. A lot more effort goes into creating balloons that can stay aloft for extended periods. If you’re unlucky a balloon pops at a mere 16km (I’d even seen a few pop at 12km) and at the other extreme some balloons make it to 42km. The reported altitude in the case of typical weather balloons is the Geopotential Height (see wikipedia entry on that) and it is estimated from the barometric pressure. I wonder if the NWS makes the raw balloon data freely available.

  10. JB of Brisbane

    Photo reminds me of the cover of Boston’s album, Third Stage. I keep looking out for the big organ pipe spaceship to appear.

  11. rob

    ballons, iphones, gps–students these days have wonderful cheap devices to do awesome experiments like this.

    i have one question though: what do flat earthers think of this? *anyone* can do this and get photographic evidence that the earth is not flat.

  12. Matt B.

    @4 Gr8GooglyMoogly – “You keep mentioning this Cosmic Ray guy. I wonder, does he play the Theremin?”

    I think he sells pizza in New York at Famous Original Cosmic Ray’s. (They should totally have used that on Futurama.)

  13. MC

    > i have one question though: what do flat earthers think of this? *anyone* can do this and get photographic evidence that the earth is not flat.

    Flat Earthers, like most believers in faith-based systems are not interested in evidence. That you can provide some against their notions is of no concern to them.

  14. The really interesting part of this isn’t the balloon, it’s the re-entry vehicle, a cheap but clever Styrofoam contraption that floated back to Earth without a parachute, landing about 40 miles away, with all its electronic equipment intact. Very, very clever.


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