It turns out, a lot.
NASA and the National Science Foundation have used balloons to learn about natural phenomena during part of each Antarctic summer from December to February. The balloons are launched to collect data that will help us understand phenomena in the universe-from the extreme to the every day-and this year’s balloon launches occurred on Monday.
Before you balk Sarah Palin-style, consider that balloons can go where we can’t-floating outside of our atmosphere, collecting data for us, exposed to the elements with relatively little consequence. It may not sound very sophisticated, but relatively speaking, having a balloon float around to collect data is way cheaper than having a more sophisticated vehicle for data collection like, say, a shuttle. And when you hear about how these are made, you might rethink balloons as unsophisticated party decor to boot.
Among the experiments being done with these balloons, the Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass (CREAM) experiment was designed and built at the University of Maryland. CREAM is investigating high-energy cosmic-ray particles that originated from distant supernovae explosions in the Milky Way and reached Earth. Currently, CREAM VI is floating 126,000 ft above Antarctica with active science operations. The CREAM balloon is pictured above.
Another experimental balloon, the Balloon Array for Radiation-belt Relativistic Electron Losses (BARREL) experiment was designed and constructed at Dartmouth College. BARREL will help us understand the scientific basis of the Northern Lights by providing answers on how and where Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts, which produce the polar aurora, periodically interact with Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Next in line will be an experiment from the University of Pennsylvania called the Balloon Borne Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST). This experiment will investigate how magnetic fields impede star formation in our galaxy, helping us understand how forces interact in the universe to give rise to stars. BLAST’s instrumentation and telescope will collect data to make the first high-resolution images of magnetically polarized dust in a number of nearby star forming regions. There will also be some really dope pictures coming out of this experiment.
The balloons used these experiments are pretty sophisticated, made of a lightweight polyethylene film, flying to altitudes of nearly 25 miles, the balloons carry payloads weighing up to 6,000 pounds. That’s like strapping a mid-size SUV to a massive balloon made of Saran wrap. A nearly circular pattern of gentle east-to-west winds that lasts for a few weeks allows the recovery of a balloon from roughly the same geographic location from which it was launched, and permits a flight path that is almost entirely above land-the balloon can go extremely high and whips around in circles that cover lots of ground, landing relatively close to the site of the launch. You can see the circular path of one balloon below.
The beauty part is that you-yes, you-can track the balloons in real time, along with the scientists. Google maps illustrate the real-time path of the balloons as they float above Earth on their missions, and you can take in video footage of balloon collection as they descend.
The whole thing gives you a nice window into the day-to-day work that scientists are doing in extreme locales to understand the universe without actually having to leave your sofa. So make it a scientific holiday-while the kids follow Santa from the North Pole, you can keep track of scientists hard at work at the other end of the world.