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Scientific Ballooning


NASA uses balloons to launch scientific experiments into the upper atmosphere—the edge of space. Balloons can carry instruments about the size of small cars to the top of the atmosphere where they can analyze cosmic rays or view the Sun and stars in new wavelengths invisible from the surface of Earth.

One of the most fascinating adventure books ever written is, In Balloon and Bathyscaphe, by Professor Auguste Piccard, first published in France in 1954. It is the story of building high-flying balloons and deep diving bathyscaphs (literally "deep boats") to explore two of the most exotic locales on Earth—the upper atmosphere and the deep ocean depths. Piccard recognized that the design of a pressurized gondola for high-altitude balloon research is similar to a spherical chamber designed to withstand thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch when diving deep into the ocean.

It is no coincidence that the captain in Star Trek: The Next Generation is named Jean Luc Picard. According to the producer of Star Trek, Captain Picard was named after Auguste Piccard’s twin brother Jean who also did pioneering work in scientific ballooning and in exploring the ocean depths. In 1934, Jean Piccard and his wife Dr. Jeannette Piccard (a chemist), set a world altitude record when they piloted their gondola to a height of 57,579 feet (17,550m) above sea level. Jeannette Piccard became the first woman to ascend into the stratosphere. The gondola of one of their balloons is on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Professor Auguste Piccard and his son, Jacques, designed the deepest diving submersible (the bathyscaph Trieste 1). In 1960, Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy officer Don Walsh piloted Trieste to the deepest point in the world's oceans. Interestingly, Trieste has been called a diving balloon, where lighter–than–water gasoline provides the buoyancy. Continuing the family tradition, Jacques Piccard’s son Bertrand has tried more than once an around-the-world non-stop balloon flight.

Balloons have a long history of use in exploration in science.

Milestones in Exploration with Balloons

The first balloon with a passenger rose to the end of a 250-foot tether and stayed aloft, for 15 minutes.

1785 The first balloon flight across the English Channel.

1793 The first balloon flight in North America. The launch of this 45–minute flight was witnessed by George Washington.

1859 French photographer and balloonist Gaspard Felix Tournachon, also known as Nadar, carried his bulky cameras aloft to make land surveys from aerial photographs.

1862 The U.S. Army Balloon Corps was established by President Lincoln. Tethered balloons were used for reconnaissance during the Civil War.

1912 Viktor Hess took an electroscope on a balloon ride, to see if radioactivity decreased with altitude. He discovered that the rate of particles increased as his elevation got higher indicating that these particles did not appear to be coming only from the Earth.

1935 The Helium-filled Explorer II balloon launched near Rapid City, South Dakota carrying Captain Albert Stevens, Captain Orvil Anderson, and an assortment of instruments rose to a world record altitude of 22,066 kilometers (72,395 feet). The cameras captured remarkable photographs of South Dakota and demonstrated the value of reconnaissance from balloons.

Scientific Ballooning Today Today’s balloons can be over 20 million cubic feet in volume and can carry scientific payloads that weigh 5,000 pounds to altitudes in excess of 100,000 feet. They provide a less expensive way to launch larger payloads into a near-space environment.

Balloons have been used for scientific research in a number of areas. One of the first areas was in cosmic ray studies, which continue today. Balloons have also been used to carry instruments for research in the fields of:

  • Gamma Ray and X-Ray Astronomy
  • Optical and Ultra-Violet Astronomy
  • Micrometeorite Particles
  • Infrared Astronomy
  • Magnetospheric Physics
  • Atmospheric Sciences

Balloon systems consist of a balloon, a parachute, and a payload containing instruments to conduct an experiment. The balloon is inflated with a certain amount of helium, which expands as the balloon rises. After the experiment is finished, usually after several hours, a radio signal is given, and the payload separates from the balloon and is parachuted down, where it can be reused. The balloon then falls to Earth as well.

Inflation of the balloon




Inflation of the balloon.

Close up of payload
Close-up of a payload with scientific equipment hanging from the launch crane. This payload is for an experiment launched from Fairbanks, Alaska.
Launch of balloon with scientific payload from the National Scientific Balloon Facility, at Palestine, Texas Launch of a balloon with a scientific payload from the National Scientific Balloon Facility at Palestine, Texas. The scientific payload is hanging from the crane-like device, ready for launch.
Launch area at the National Scientific Balloon Facility Launch area at the National Scientific Balloon Facility. There is a 1000-foot diameter paved circle for the launch vehicle and balloon layout. This facility can support two simultaneous launches.
Photo of balloon ascending at launch Photo of a balloon ascending at launch with the payload just leaving the ground.
Plot of the path of a balloon launched from Fairbanks Alaska Plot of the path of a balloon launched from Fairbanks, Alaska which circumnavigated the Earth’s polar region. The balloon passed over Siberia; near St. Petersburg; Sweden; Iceland; Greenland; and the northern territories of Canada.
Scientific payload parachuting to Earth at the end of a scientific mission Scientific payload parachuting to Earth at the end of a scientific mission. With a soft landing, the instrument can be used again.

Related to chapter 3 in the print guide.
Glossary Terms

Click for the definitions of the following words that are used on this page: (Definitions appear in a pop-up window.)

cosmic rays
gamma rays
infrared radiation
ultraviolet radiation

View the full, printable version of the glossary.

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