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
I’ve posted a lot of stuff about Sunday’s annular eclipse (see Related Links below), and I figured I was done… but then I got a pretty remarkable picture sent to me.
During the eclipse, in northern California, two men sent a small (6 cubic meter) helium-filled balloon up to 90,000 feet (roughly 27 km). Equipped with a camera and an ingenious system that used puffs of gas to orient the payload, they took this pretty amazing shot of the eclipse:
[Click to penumbrenate.]
That’s the Earth on the left (duh), and on the upper right you can see the eclipsed Sun! They used a solar filter to cover half the camera’s view so that they could get the correct exposure for both the Earth and the much brighter Sun.
I really enjoyed reading their story on how they set this up and executed it. I especially liked how they launched, sat around to watch the eclipse itself, then set off to find the balloon once it came back down (shredded after it popped at its lofty apex).
I love stuff like this! Basic equipment, clever people, and a can-do attitude results in something remarkable. Well done!
P.S. My friend and fellow Boulder astronomer Stuart Robbins posted a series of lovely timed sequences from the eclipse that he took in Albuquerque. It’s well worth a click!
Last Tuesday was back-to-school day for TLA*. On that day we got up early for the first time in a long time, prepped her, and with remarkably little fuss got her sent out the door.
… only to have her banging on the door literally ten seconds later. Figuring we had forgotten something, Mrs. BA† and I opened the door, whereupon TLA said "Come see this!"
We went outside, and this is what we saw:
[Click to hotairinflatenate.]
I ran back inside to grab my camera, and there ya go. We get lots of hot air balloons around here — the view of the foothills and Rockies must be stunning from up there — but I’ve never had such a perfectly framed shot like this one before.
Sometimes I like to use pictures like this as an excuse to talk about science — adiabatic expansion would fit here, or perspective and distance — but you know what? I think this is fine pretty much as it is.
* The Little Astronomer, who’s not so little anymore.
† Decidedly not her real name, either.