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Balloons And The Exploration Of The Unknown

In 1863, the first remarkable high-altitude ascent was made by Glaisher and Coxwell in England. The purpose of this flight was purely a scientific one: to observe and record the properties of the upper atmosphere. The explorers rose to over 33,000 ft (10,000 m). The attempt almost cost them their lives, but fortunately they survived to describe the unique experience. This outstanding attempt was followed by many others, and high-altitude scientific ascents continued until the early 1960s. A specific layer of the atmosphere between 35,000 and 130,000 ft (11,000 and 40,000 m), which is called stratosphere, for some time became a new challenge to human spirit and engineering art. The mark of 72,395 ft (22,066 m), achieved by Stevens and Anderson in 1935, was a tremendous success for that time and was surpassed only twenty years later, when the United States resumed the manned stratosphere ballooning. The last in the series was the flight of Ross and Prather, who attained the altitude of 113,740 ft (34,467 m) in 1961. The technology developed to secure man's survival in extreme conditions became a germ of future space life-support systems.

The introduction of new lightweight and very strong plastic materials made it possible to build extremely big balloons able to take aloft huge payloads. Loaded with sophisticated instruments, such balloons began to carry out complex studies of the atmosphere, biomedical and geographical research, and astronomical observations.

Each day, thousands of balloons measure all possible characteristics of the atmosphere around the entire globe, contributing to the worldwide meteorological database. This information is needed for understanding the laws of air-mass movement and for accurate weather forecasting.

Balloon astronomy takes advantage of making observations in the clarity of the upper air, away from dust, water vapor, and smoke. Telescopes with a diameter of up to 3.3 ft (1 m) are placed on platforms, which are supported by mammoth balloons, as high as an eight-story building, at elevations of up to 66,000-120,000 ft (20,000-35,000 m).

The Russian mission to Venus in 1985 used two helium balloons to examine the motion of the Venusian atmosphere. For 46 hours, they floated above Venus with an attached package of scientific equipment that analyzed the environment and transmitted the information directly to Earth. For comparison, a landing module in the mission functioned for only 21 minutes.

The success of balloons on Venus may be possibly continued on Mars. To carry a multipurpose research probe above the Martian surface, American scientists suggested an original device consisting of a big hot-air balloon and a much smaller helium-filled balloon connected together. During the day, the air-balloon, heated by the sun, would drift in the Martian atmosphere with a payload of instruments. At night, the air-balloon would cool and descend to the ground, where it would stay, supported in the upright position by the smaller gas-balloon. Thus, the same probe would perform the on-ground experiments at night and the atmospheric experiments during the day, travelling from one location to another.



The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Space. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Curtis, A. R. Space Almanac. Arcsoft Publishers, 1990.

DeVorkin, D. H. Race to the Stratosphere. Springer-Verlag, 1989.

Jackson, D. D. The Aeronauts. Time-Life Books, Inc., 1980.

Elena V. Ryzhov

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ballistic galvanometer to Big–bang theoryBalloon - Balloons and the exploration of the unknown