In recent years, high altitude weather balloons have become increasingly popular as tools for conducting many different types of research. These balloons allow researchers and hobbyists to launch their payloads to the very edge of space, and this can be done on a relatively modest budget and within a reasonable frame of time. The following is a brief guide to conducting research in this way.
The first thing to do is determine your goal and design your experiment. You may simply want to send a camera up to take video or still photographs from high in the atmosphere. Other types of equipment can measure air pressure, temperature, cosmic radiation levels, or other atmospheric conditions. There are endless possibilities here, but you will need a specific objective for the next step.
After deciding what kind of research you will be conducting, you need to design a suitable craft. There are several basic components that you will need regardless of your experiment. These materials include the actual balloon, helium to fuel it, a GPS system to track it after launching, a container to hold your gear, and the parachute that will slow the container's descent.
You will probably be able to find many of the needed items at a general retailer. A simple Styrofoam cooler will often work as a capsule to carry any equipment. Other items, like the helium and the balloon, may only be available from suppliers of scientific materials. You may also want to consider purchasing a kit that already contains all of the necessary supplies.
Once you have managed to find the necessary supplies, it is time to move on to constructing the craft. You may need to get creative, as some types of research will require special design features. If possible, try to test each component before the launch. Simulate landing conditions, check batteries, and make sure the parachute works properly.
When testing has been completed, you can finally plan the actual launch. Check the weather forecast and choose a day when you are likely to have clear skies and calm atmospheric conditions. You may want to launch at dawn because you are likely to encounter the slowest wind speeds at that time of day.
The balloon may ascend for up to three hours before bursting. Under ideal conditions, this will happen near the outer edge of the planet's atmosphere. As it descends, you will need to monitor its location with the GPS so that you can find it when it lands. There is a chance that it will touch down near your launch site, but it could fall 150 miles or more from that location.
If all of the equipment has functioned as it was supposed to, and if you are able to retrieve your craft, then all you have left is to analyze the collected data. Using high altitude weather balloons for research purposes really is as easy as that. Hopefully this guide has helped introduce you to the basics.
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