Balloons supporting scientific study

The long love affair between scientists and balloons dating back to the 18th century...
10 February 2023


Hot air balloon


Thanks Chris. Calling in from 2000 feet here. Well, not really.

I’m sure you’ll have heard, this week, of the Chinese surveillance balloon that the US shot down which they now claim was able to collect communications signals. Equipped with instruments capable of "intelligence collection operations" it’s sparked a major international row.

In the face of US accusations, the Chinese government is sticking to its story describing the vessel as ‘a scientific research balloon.’

So what’s the precedent for using balloons for scientific research?

Well, as it happens, even in an era when spaceflight and exploration missions are almost routine, balloons continue to offer a key research tool for astronomers, astrophysicists and atmospheric scientists.

For all this to be possible, the idea for the first flying balloon was conceived by Jacques Charles who helped the Robert brothers build the first hydrogen balloon in 1783.

More people perhaps will know the Montgolfier Brothers, though, as the architects of the first manned hot air balloon flights in France in 1783. Ballooning for the early pioneers that the brothers inspired, however, was something of an entertainment industry: a  competition between the most skilled engineers, battling to see who could go highest to draw in the largest paying crowd. Jean Pierre Blanchard, one such early professional pilot, is remembered for being the first to cross the English channel by balloon in 1785.

This history of ballooning daredevilry culminates in Felix Baumgartner’s skydive from a helium balloon in 2012 at an altitude of 39km, reaching a top speed of 1358 km/h and becoming the first man to break the sound barrier without vehicular power.

Balloons taking scientific measurements can be traced back again to France, and meteoroligist Leon Teissernec de Bort. From 1896, he launched hundreds of balloons from his observatory, noticing that air temperature got lower and lower up to 11 km in altitude, but a constant temperature above that height. This led to the discovery that the atmosphere was split into two layers: the troposphere below and the stratosphere on top.

Modern weather balloons carry instruments to measure atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind speed. Weather balloons are launched globally for current conditions and weather forecasting by both human forecasters and computer models. They are released routinely from 900 to 1,300 locations around the world, two to four times a day.

Meanwhile, NASA use multiple types of balloons to lift scientific payloads into the atmosphere as a low cost way to take measurements over long durations, equipped with radio receivers and powered by solar energy.

So while the rich history of ballooning does feature a strong scientific heritage, you can see why the multiple antenna US officials say they found attached to the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon has raised a few eyebrows.


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