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NASA Launches Largest Single-Cell Balloon 53

hohosforbreakfast writes "According to CNN, NASA launched the largest single-cell, fully-sealed balloon ever from Australia. This thing is supposed to be as large as a football (American) stadium once it's fully inflated, and flies 20 miles high. It'll circumnavigate the globe and then be landed by remote control in Australia. It looks like this flight is a proof-of-concept, but more flights, lasting 100 days each, are planned. Looks like an interesting alternative to satellites for certain observations. The official site is here."
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NASA Launches Largest Single-Cell Balloon

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  • This may be wonderful for research, but it could be deadly for marine life.

    Already, many forms of animal life in the ocean suffer from contact with man-made non-biodegradable membranes (e.g. baloons). Can we in good conscience send even more of these deadly devices into the wild? I'm concerned that the sheer size of these balloons has the potential to negatively impact many many animals - especially if they are deployed in number.

    I don't wish to give more importance to this issue than it warrants, but I a believe that consequences to marine life should've been more carefully considered.

    - qpt
  • I just gotta wonder where you get that much helium from. With that much helium needed, they must've needed to create an entire facility just to produce it. Imagine the power requirements to do something like that!
  • That thing could probably keep your voice sounding funny for weeks, as long as you breathe some oxygen every now and then.
  • Oh great, I can't wait until that thing malfunctions and comes sailing down on top of my house... oh wait, my entire town...

    Seriously if it's remote control, could they actually get in touch with it anywhere on it's global trip if it happens to go wrong? I know they could keep track of it using the existing radar network and fit a standard aviation transdator and even GPS system on it, but I don't see how they could actually transmit signals from the ground to the thing to control it...


  • Remember the article last week about the glider/rocket that would refuel? I'm glad the phbs are doing something constructive. What would really be of interest is if you could launch something, say construction material, into low earth orbit, and have a teather shot into low earth orbit, where a passing shuttle could pick the junk up, saving fuel/payload area for more mission crit stuff.
    I wonder what the lift capacity wiuld be? Cost per baloon? Its gotta be less than a Proton!
  • by Anonymous Coward
    The website says the flight has been terminated.
  • by PhatKat ( 78180 ) on Saturday February 24, 2001 @09:50PM (#405050) Homepage
    February 24, 2001

    SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- A giant balloon, which scientists hope will usher in a new age of near space research by riding on the edge of the Earth's atmosphere, took off Sunday after a two-month delay.

    "Everybody's a bit relieved," said Garry Woods, the acting launch station director.

    Especially relieved was the crew of technicians, 400 strong, who could finally relax.

    "We had quite a time of it," said Binky, the team director. "There was a lot of controversy at first, as to what shape the giant balloon would be in. Garry was originally inclined to go with a weiner dog, because he thought it would be most aerodynamic. But we managed to talk him out of. He just didn't understand at first that that particular balloon animal simply didn't scale well. Giggles was the one that had the bright idea of suggesting the ellipse shape, which everyone seemed to like."

    Before the clowns finally hopped into their tiny car the launch site, the were nice enough to stop to answer a few questions. Asked what was the hardest part of the process, a short, green wigged clown smoking a cigarette stated simply: "blowing the goddamn thing up. I need a beer."
  • by barawn ( 25691 ) on Saturday February 24, 2001 @09:53PM (#405051) Homepage
    NASA doesn't leave the balloon material in the wild. The balloons as they fall are tracked and recovered. NASA takes immense precautions when it comes to impacting both human life and wildlife. Please note that I'm being very serious about this, and not joking nor quoting some propaganda - having worked on a ballooning project, I know that the mission priorities come second to both human life and environmental impact. This is extremely frustrating sometimes, especially when you hope to get 40 hours at float, but, it's a good policy.

    As an example, have you ever seen a scientific balloon up? Not unless you live in a few select areas of the country - ones with immense wide open spaces where a balloon's descent can be controlled accurately (New Mexico is one of them - Fort Sumner, to be specific). The instrument has to be recovered (you want it to fly again, after all) and so you recover both it and the balloon.

    There's no danger to wildlife in this case. That factor has already been considered.
  • by vectus ( 193351 )

    This is the biggest UFO ever??

  • ICBW, but I don't see how you could launch anything into actual earth orbit from a balloon.

    As well as having so much altitude that the atmosphere provides negligible drag (which is so high that hydrogen wouldn't get you there anyway... the hydrogen in the balloon would be heavier than the near-vacuous atmosphere around it at orbiter-type-altitudes) you also need considerable transverse velocity -- many thousands of miles per hour -- to orbit, and I don't see how a balloon could ever provide that.

    With a shuttle it's easy -- you just roll the shuttle over to it's going at an angle away from the earth when it launches, to give it appropriate amounts of both radial (up away from the earth) and tangential momentum.

    So it's a nice idea, but what you describe it going to have to wait until the space elevator (mentioned previously on slashdot)


  • Worst comes to worst, if the balloon gets within any manmade installation (i.e. has any - note *any* potential to do harm) they'd take a chase plane, and radio a command to it to cut the payload.

    After all, it's a balloon. It's not like a plane or anything - it just floats. That's beneficial - you don't need any control systems. All you need is a GPS system and a radio. If it starts to head near anything manmade, you cut it. No big loss - just a few hours at float. That's why you wait forever to launch the thing - you wait till the winds are ideal.
  • Hopefully not.

    The last thing we need is some punk aliens popping our US-football-field-sized balloons and allowing them to fall to Earth.

    Of course, you know what would happen then. All the huge balloons from all the other galaxies would fly to us in mourning of the death of ours. Hmm, a scary thought indeed.

    kickin' science like no one else can,
    my dick is twice as long as my attention span.
  • PS - Should have made myself clearer. I know you were talking about putting a tether, not the actual payload, at the same altitude as the shuttle, but it's the same problem: you can't get balloons half as high as the shuttle goes and the shuttle would be moving relative to the tether at thousands upon thousands of miles per hour. At those sorts of speeds even a flimsy rope could split the shuttle in two... after all, a microscopic speck of paint almost smashed a window on one once.
  • ... with a fully inflated diameter of 58.5 meters (193 feet) and height of 35 meters (115 feet).

    Hmmm, that would make its diameter more than 100 feet shorter than an American football field. Not exactly the "size of a domed football stadium." Arena football perhaps?
  • Most likely, yes.

    Not to offend any Australians. The only main concern is population density.

    The ballooners actually have quite a bit of control over the balloon, actually. On the balloon campaign I was on, there was a problem with the first launch - the balloon actually had a leak in it, and so it was rapidly losing helium. Of course, it never could reach float altitude and the only concern then was getting the payload and balloon down without any risk or danger to people/livestock/environment.

    It was rather impressive. The NSBF (National Scientific Ballooning Foundation) people are very impressive - very good at their jobs. They cut the payload at 40,000 feet, which was actually quite below what we were hoping to reach before cutting it down, but apparently the estimates for the necessary height for a safe landing were a bit conservative. On its descent, the payload missed power lines by a few feet, missed telephone wires by fewer, and landed about two feet away from a fence, on the only flat spot in the surrounding areas.

    Needless to say, we were very, very impressed.

    Anyway, the main reason I'm stating this is just to get out of a jam I got in arguing with someone last time - this isn't to say there's anything wrong with Australia - it's just that in this case, you have a large area where you can bring the balloon down safely without having any reasonable risk of danger.
  • sorry about posting this to the wrong place. I don't know what happened.
  • Anna Nicole Smith would beat it hands down (and shoulders back) if they were in the same category.
  • by HillBilly ( 120575 ) on Saturday February 24, 2001 @10:13PM (#405062)
    ...Must come down. And it already has. I just heard on the evening news that it was brought down by remote control after it developed a leak.
  • I thought from reading the title that this was a football stadium sized, balloon shaped single-cell organism... I guess there is more than one type of cell.
  • by barawn ( 25691 ) on Saturday February 24, 2001 @10:27PM (#405064) Homepage
    Yah. It's a really sad thing to hear, but this is the way balloon experiments go sometimes. It's also not a big concern, as well, since so long as you don't lose the payload, it's easy to just launch another balloon. Of course, the cost is upsetting, but it's acceptable in proof-of-concept flights.

    Best of luck to the team - I hope their rapid "up-down" flight goes as good as ours did! Hope the payload's okay - and good luck on the next flight.

    (Oh, and don't doubt that some of the members might be reading Slashdot even as this happens. Considering all you can really do sometimes is wait for approval, etc., there really isn't anything else to do.)
  • These balloons carry multi-million dollar payloads of scientific instruments. Loosing one in the water would be a huge deal, and would be avoided at all costs. There are generally not that many flights per year, so you are completely off base.

    As for them coming down on your house, that isn't an issue for these ULDB flights which will go around the polar regions. But for shorter flights, which go out of the southwest (and Canada), it is a real concern during cutdown. Generally it comes down to a fight between NASA voting for safety and the scientists who built the instruments voting to risk it for more data.

    Another tidbit: there was a malfunction with a payload called ISOMAX last year. Generally, the payload is cut away from the balloon and it has a parachute to bring it down. The parachute is cut away once the payload is on the ground to prevent it from being dragged, etc... Unfortunately, there was a vessel failure and loss of GPS tracking, and the parachute was cut while the payload was still X thousand feet in the air and the whole thing went splat out in Manitoba. In NASA's book this qualified as a the same level incident as the shuttle explosion. With the splat went many tens of man-years of work and several million dollars.
  • If its a single cell the size of a football stadium, how big is the nucleus?
  • *Looks like an interesting alternative to satellites for certain observations.*

    This balloon is a pretty poor alternative for most applications that satellites can do.

    Weather Observation Firstly to view a wide area the vechicle needs to be high. This balloon would not travel high enough to view a decent area

    SpyingWhat good is a balloon that goes where ever it pleases and has a radar signature the size of a concrete building

    Communications Again no point- The balloon's direction can't be controled, so its no good for a relay node.

    Space observationThe platform is too unstable, since it still flies in the albeit thin atmosphere. You would need some pretty snazy gyroscopes to stabilise any sort of space monitoring equipment.

    Perhaps the one thing this device is good for is environmental monitoring in the stratosphere

  • There's never really a 'fight': NSBF always wins - they really, truly decide when to cut the experiment, not the scientists. The only time the scientists are involved is if it's a subjective-type thing, as in "well, if we allow a few more hours, it might not be possible to guarantee a safe touchdown" - safe, meaning to the payload, not to people. Balloons can't - as in, NSBF won't let them - fly near an area where, if the payload drifted to the ground, it would have a chance of hitting someone, or if the payload fell straight down, it would have a chance of hitting someone.
  • by barawn ( 25691 ) on Saturday February 24, 2001 @10:46PM (#405069) Homepage
    The balloon isn't an alternative to commercial satellites - it's an alternative to scientific satellites.

    It's cheap and effectively gets you out of the atmosphere. That's all you need for scientific experiments.

    Plenty of science has actually already been done on balloons, and plenty of traditional science is migrating to balloons because of the cost advantage. Telescopes, for instance, are excellent candidates for balloon flights, if you can work out a few kinks here and there (pointing). The main disadvantage had been the float time - measured in hours previously. The ULDB will eliminate that disadvantage, and hopefully, ULDBs will start replacing many satellite missions which could have functioned fine on balloons.
  • Everyone knows NASA is just full of hot air.

  • this is an unmanned balloon. It is far easier to make one of these work than a manned one, which requires all sorts of complicated (and heavy) systems.
  • by cshotton ( 46965 ) on Saturday February 24, 2001 @11:25PM (#405072) Homepage
    According to the real time tracking page at the site [], the flight was terminated shortly after launch.
  • I sure would hate to be a passenger on a jet that slammed into one of these !
  • by Anonymous Coward
    The last thing we need is some punk aliens popping our US-football-field-sized balloons and allowing them to fall to Earth.

    All Your Balloons Are Belong To Us!
  • Just reading the story summary made me think that the story had something to do with NASA inflating an actual *cell* to some gargantuan size. How far can a phospholipid bilayer stretch? ;)

    Gotta stop reading Slashdot while drunk at three in the morning... Brain to body.... Come in body... Only read Slashdot at work so you can get paid for doing it... Brain out...

  • I remember a rumor that there was a huge helium storage facility in Texas ("just in case" zeppelins become important war machines) - some kind of pork barrel politics. That still true?
  • I'm fully aware that there's no chemical reaction. I didn't know if it was extracted from the air or what.

    Excuuuuuuse meeeeee.

  • It was launched from Alice Springs, but developed a leak sometime after launch it developed a leak, and came down 200km from the launch site, using a parachute. Apparently the experiment on board survived, but will probably not be re-used. NASA has a spare balloon in Alice Springs, and will try the launch again in the near future.

    It may have failed, but it looked quite spectacular on the news. They say it doesn't mean and end to the project.

  • I think they might have perhaps identified it before lift-off?? (DUH!)
  • It was just on the news in Aus. tonight. There was a problem of some kind and it fell from the sky like the proverbial stone. Apparently the experiment it was carrying survived the crash though.

  • According to the new here (Darwin, Aus)
    It came down 200Km later
  • by fantomas ( 94850 ) on Sunday February 25, 2001 @01:02AM (#405082)

    Was the failure due to a NASA mixup over US football stadium units of measurement vs. Aussie rules football stadium units? ;-)

  • The balloon is only 1% or less full of helium when launched. There's only a tiny bubble of helium in it. The helium expands as the balloon rises into lower density air until it is 100% full at full altitude.

    It's only a drop in the bucket of annual helium production of (1997) some 100,000,000 cubic meters (3.5 billion cubic feet) in the US alone (the US produces the bulk of the world's helium).


    http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity /h elium/330398.pdf
  • i love how the football field (and the related stadium) has become a standard of measurement in america. "the meteor crater could fit 27 football fields on it's bottom", "the kitty hawk flew just about the length of a football field", "the missile has enough accuracy to hit a football field after being launched 5000 miles away", etc. etc.

    what ever happened to feet (or meters for that matter)? not sensationalist enough...

  • Well, one application could be to test the truth in this [slashdot.org]...
  • I mis-read it too, but I didn't think of a "cell" the way you did. I just saw "the size of a football", then there were some parenthesis. And then I got kind of confused. Is a football very big?! Then I read on and figured it out.

    They need to make Slashdot easier to read for those whose brains are not yet functioning... :)

  • You omitted another one...

    Try monitoring the weather with an enormous balloon above you. ("Why is it that our weather forecasts always call for 'partly cloudy', and there's always this area the size of a football field with no precipitation?" ;)

  • What the hell is the Kitty Hawk? Do you mean to say that the Wright Brothers decided to one-up themselves by making the entire island town that they flew in take off??
  • ...biggest pin, and create the worlds largest pop.
  • I just gotta wonder where you get that much helium from.

    "Helium is extracted from natural gas deposits. Only a few sources in the world contain a significant proportion of helium and justify its separation. These are in the US, Poland, Algeria and Russia. Because of its high value, helium is the only major industrial gas to be traded internationally."

    From: BOC Gases - The Industrial Gases Company [boc.com]

  • I think NASA might have some satellites or something. Maybe.
  • What's the big deal? 100 days? Jules Verne has already proven that it can be done in 80. Unless they chop down the flight time I won't be impressed.
  • the SR71 flew too fast.. so tehy need something slower to do their intrusive civil rights breaking spying on americans
  • 35 km is higher, by more than a factor of two, than commercial aircraft operate, and is outside the reach of military operations except under the most extraordinary conditions. And maybe there's a reason why they launched from Australia instead of, for example, somewhere underneath the approaches to New York City?

    Seriously, the problem of keeping these things out of the way of aircraft should be solvable. It certainly isn't harder than stopping high school training ships from sneaking up on and surprising gigabuck nuclear attack submarines. Often, safety is a matter of ensuring that a repeatable process is in fact being repeated.

  • Another example of balloon (in)stability can be found at http://balloons.aero.und.edu/habp/project_13/ [und.edu] I'm part of this balloon group, with our goal being inexpensive proof of concept type flights. (We are hoping to send a Tiqit matchbox computer up soon, although hard drives don't like going above 20k feet.)

Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced -- even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it. -- John Keats