The Spring Institute launched our first stratospheric payload on March 9th, 2023 in Cantal, France!
What’s a Stratospheric Balloon?
A stratospheric balloon launch is a type of balloon launch where a large balloon is filled with helium or other lifting gases and launched into the Earth’s atmosphere with the purpose of carrying scientific instruments or other payloads to high altitudes. The balloon is typically made of a thin, lightweight material such as polyethylene, and can be as large as several hundred feet in diameter.
Once the balloon is launched, it ascends through the Earth’s atmosphere, gradually rising to higher altitudes until it reaches the stratosphere, which is the second layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. The stratosphere is located between approximately 10 and 50 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, and is known for its relatively stable and dry conditions, which make it an ideal location for conducting scientific experiments.
Stratospheric balloon launches are often used to study a wide range of scientific phenomena, including atmospheric chemistry, climate change, and astronomy. The payloads carried by the balloons can include instruments such as telescopes, cameras, and sensors that measure various properties of the atmosphere. In our case, as well as different types of sensors, the payload contained a terrarium!
Building a Balloon Payload
Everything was ready on time for launch day. (That we stayed up until 3:30am the night before frantically tying knots in parachute cord and programming sensors and SIM cards was just a coincidence.)
The nacelle, a fancy word for a balloon payload, was assembled of styrofoam so that we could keep our total weight below 2kg. It was effectively several boxes within boxes, so that we could protect the true payload – a tiny fern terrarium – with redundant layers of insulation.
Launching a Balloon with the Help of Local Students
On March 9th, 2023, the Spring Institute for Forests on the Moon teamed up with Planète Science for an epic adventure: the first-ever plant launch on a stratospheric balloon. The launch took place in the rural region of Cantal, France, where the Spring Institute is based. Aiding in the launch was a class of about 30 local middle school-aged kids. Their excitement was evident – who wouldn’t want to be a part of a science mission to the stratosphere?
Planète Science, a renowned organization dedicated to inspiring young minds with the wonders of science and technology, is providing support for the mission. With their expertise in stratospheric balloon launches, gained through numerous educational initiatives in schools across the country, they are the perfect partner for this groundbreaking endeavor.
For Spring Institute, this is just the beginning of a bold new era of scientific exploration. The launch tested a range of crucial parameters, including temperature, pressure, and humidity, that will pave the way for future research. In particular, this experiment tested the work of our thermal engineer, Yasser Moumtaz, in determining the effectiveness of “space blankets” (made of real gold foil!) in insulating the payload. Multiple redundant layers of foil proved to be effective at maintaining temperature, despite the lack of an airtight seal.
Sadly, we weren’t able to recover the payload after launch. Once our balloon reached 30km into the atmosphere, the balloon popped as designed and fell slowly to the ground with the included parachute. Unfortunately, the GPS receiver failed to report the location, so the payload was lost.
Despite that, we still received lots of useful sensor data using our communication station. See it being erected here:
This is but the first balloon launch of many. Being able to cheaply and (relatively) easily access the atmosphere is very useful for testing communication, mission logistics, and sensor suites. It’s also a great place to do thermal testing, which is imperative for our primarily biological payloads.
Great work team! Thanks for your help, kids!