A high-altitude weather balloon flight filmed beautiful near-space images while successfully testing tracking systems.
In December 2016, physics students from the University of Leicester launched a high-altitude weather balloon to test electronic control systems for future pollution-monitoring flights and advanced navigation systems.
It’s the photographs and video taken during the flight, however, that have captured the attention of most people.
The balloon was launched into the Stratosphere, what’s termed “near space,” where both temperature and air density are low.
Weather balloons can rise as high as 40 kilometers (24 miles) before they burst. Outer space doesn’t begin until you reach 100 kilometers (62 miles) above Earth’s surface, but the curvature of the Earth is clearly visible from the near-space altitudes reached by Aether One, the University of Leicester student project. Viewing the mission’s images of the curvature of the Earth, and the six-minute video of a sea of clouds and the blue-black rim of our planet, are as close as most of us will get to the edge of space.
The students launched the balloon near Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire, UK, and its scientific payload components landed in perfect condition near Warwickshire, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) away.
The students ran out of time to test full sensor and advanced navigation systems on their first flight, but are planning future launches. Robert Peck, the student responsible for flight control electronics, said in a press release that “We've proven the reliability of the payload electronics and tracking methods, the payload returned in perfect condition, that's a lot to say for something that's been to 23.6 kilometers (14.7 miles) and plunged back to earth at over 44.7 meters per second (100 miles per hour). The tracking also worked perfectly; we are indebted to the amateur radio community for helping us to set up the tracking equipment.”
According to Joseph Maydell, the founder of High Altitude Science, high altitude balloon flights are becoming cheap and widely available, increasing opportunities for research, near-space hardware testing, and Earth data and imagery. Young people eager to learn about science are also taking advantage of inexpensive balloon technology. In the past few years, school children have launched balloons carrying, among other things, a Lego figure, a Hello Kitty doll, and bobblehead versions of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
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