Serene insignificance

I’ve just got back from a week in the Mojave desert on Nasa’s Spaceward Bound programme. The idea is that a bunch of teachers and post-grads get the chance to work alongside some top class scientists and feel inspired to follow similar paths, or to inspire the next generation of scientists.

We did a whole range of different cool science things, which I will do my best to blog about later, but the thing that is making me squeak with excitement right now is the set of photos that we got from the high altitude balloon experiment.

Eric Wang and his team from Reno, Nevada, were testing out the feasibility of using weather balloons to conduct studies at high altitude. Usually this sort of research might be done with aeroplanes, but this poses a number of problems, namely cost and potential contamination of samples. If they could use balloons to reach heights of 100,000 feet and above then this would open up the possibilities for high altitude research in the future.

We sent up some balloons with test payloads and Eric and his team took on the role of balloon chasers – tracking the balloons via GPS and chasing them down to Arizona where they finally landed. (At a certain height the pressure differential means that the balloons burst, and the payload is parachuted back down to Earth.)

Balloons that start out packed up the size of a loaf of bread, weighing around 6lbs, are inflated with Hydrogen and at ground level measure approximately 6ft across. At the height of their journey they expand to almost 50ft across before the latex can no longer take the strain and the balloons burst.

Myself and fellow Spaceward Bound-er Lia Klofas took part in one of the experiments and fashioned a cube from polystyrene sheets to house a camera, set to take photographs every 10 seconds, a small heater, to prevent the camera battery from freezing, and a temperature sensor that would measure the ambient temperature both within and without the payload package.

Other things that went up with the balloons included a video camera, GPS units, air samplers and temperature sensors. The balloons were picked up and brought back to base after one landed beside a road and the other up a mountain… Much excitement as we recovered our camera and downloaded the pictures. Here are a select few which frankly leave me completely speechless.

If this is how beautiful the world looks, then I feel quite serene in my total insignificance within it.

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5 thoughts on “Serene insignificance

  1. Kate – the photos are amaing. I can only imaging how wxciting this must have been! How high did your balloon get, and how long do these flights last?

    1. James – the balloons apparently reached 108,000 ft, which is a little off the group’s record of 111,000 ft, but still not too shabby for a big balloon. I think that they flew for about 1.5 – 2 hours before landing in Arizona. :)

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