12-Year Old Invents a New Kind of Space Selfie

by Dr. Tony Phillips (Spaceweather.com)

Last December, Joyce and Tad Lhamon of Seattle, Washington, bought their 12-year-old grandson Barrett a far-out Christmas gift–that is, a trip to the edge of space. In exchange for this gift certificate, Barrett could fly any experiment he wanted to the stratosphere onboard an Earth to Sky Calculus helium balloon. He thought about it for months and, after discarding many ideas, Barrett decided to fly a convex mirror. The payload’s cameras could look into the mirror and take a new kind of “space selfie.” Would it work? On April 17th, we flew Barrett’s experiment, and the results were better than anyone dreamed:

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“Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have flown more than 150 missions to the edge of space monitoring cosmic rays and stress-testing microbes. We’ve never seen our payload quite like this before.

A particularly interesting sequence of images shows the balloon exploding above the payload 117,100 feet above Earth. The following video frames are separated by only 1/30th of a second: #1, #2, #3, #4. Note how the payload remains motionless during the explosion. It takes more than a second for the shock wave from the explosion to propagate down the long cord connecting the payload to the balloon.

Congratulations, Barrett, on a very successful experiment!

Physics of an Exploding Space Weather Balloon

by Dr. Tony Phillips (Spaceweather.com)

On Feb. 27, 2016, the students of Earth to Sky Calculus launched a space weather balloon to measure increasing levels of cosmic rays. At the apex of the flight, the balloon exploded as planned and the radiation sensors parachuted back to Earth. A high-speed camera on top of the payload captured some extraordinary images of the pop:

These images illustrate new findings about the physics of exploding balloons. In Oct. 2015, researchers Sébastien Moulinet and Mokhtar Adda-Bedia of the Ecole Normale Supérieure published a Physical Review Letter entitled “Popping Balloons: A Case Study of Dynamical Fragmentation.” In it, they reported the results of a series of fun yet informative laboratory experiments in which one balloon after another was popped and analyzed.

Basically, there are two ways a balloon can pop: along a single tear (the “opening regime”) or along many tears (the “fragmentation regime”). This video shows the two regimes in action. Which way the balloon decided to pop depends on the stress in the rubber membrane. When the stress is low, it can be relieved with a single tear, but when the stress is high, many tears are required to do the job.

Clearly, space weather balloons explode in the fragmentation regime. This is hardly a surprise. When space weather balloons are launched, they measure no more than 6 to 8 feet in diameter. By the time they reach the stratosphere, they have stretched into a sphere as wide as a house. That’s a lot of tension to release!

More information about this research is available from the American Physical Society.

Spherical Camera at the Edge of Space

On Feb. 27th, Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus launched a helium balloon to the stratosphere to monitor increasing levels of cosmic rays. In addition to radiation sensors, the payload carried something special: a spherical camera. Click and drag on the image below to explore California’s Sierra Nevada from an altitude of 115,300 feet–and don’t forget to look up at the balloon!

The camera, a Ricoh Theta S, will probably become a regular part of our cosmic ray payload. Imagery should improve in future flights as the students learn to lower the profile of the camera’s thermal pack–the strange-looking black object in the center of the 3D image. During its flight to the stratosphere, the camera experienced temperatures as low as -65 C. The thermal pack helps keep the camera’s batteries warm in these harsh conditions.

more spherical images: the students preparing to launch the balloon, the balloon ascending through clouds, the balloon exploding in the stratosphere.

Next week, the camera will take another trip–to Indonesia. The students will be using it to record a total eclipse of the sun on March 9th. Stay tuned for that!

Cosmic Rays Continue to Intensify

Researchers have long known that solar activity and cosmic rays have a yin-yang relationship. As solar activity declines, cosmic rays intensify. Lately, solar activity has been very low indeed. Are cosmic rays responding? The answer is “yes.” Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been using helium balloons to monitor cosmic rays in the stratosphere. Their data show that cosmic rays in the mid-latitude stratosphere now are approximately 12% stronger than they were one year ago:


Cosmic rays, which are accelerated toward Earth by distant supernova explosions and other violent events, are an important form of space weather. They can seed clouds, trigger lightning, and penetrate commercial airplanes. Furthermore, there are studies linking cosmic rays with cardiac arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death in the general population. Among patients who have an implanted cardioverter – defibrillator (ICD), the aggregate number of life-saving shocks appears to be correlated with the number of cosmic rays reaching the ground. References: #1, #2, #3, #4.

Why do cosmic rays increase when solar activity is low? Consider the following: To reach Earth, cosmic rays have to penetrate the inner solar system. Solar storms make this more difficult. CMEs and gusts of solar wind tend to sweep aside cosmic rays, lowering the intensity of radiation around our planet. On the other hand, when solar storms subside, cosmic rays encounter less resistance; reaching Earth is a piece of cake.

Forecasters expect solar activity to drop sharply in the years ahead as the 11-year solar cycle swings toward another deep minimum. Cosmic rays are poised to increase accordingly.

Cosmic Rays Continue to Intensify

Last month, we reported that cosmic rays are intensifying. Measurements so far in February indicate that the trend is continuing. In fact, the latest balloon flight over California on Feb. 5th detected the highest value yet:

The data show that cosmic rays in the mid-latitude stratosphere now are approximately 10% stronger than they were one year ago. All of these measurements were collected by Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus.

Cosmic rays, which are accelerated toward Earth by distant supernova explosions and other violent events, are an important form of space weather. They can seed clouds, trigger lightning, and penetrate commercial airplanes. Indeed, our measurements show that someone flying back and forth across the continental USA, just once, can absorb as much ionizing cosmic radiation as 2 to 5 dental X-rays. Likewise, cosmic rays can affect mountain climbers, high-altitude drones, and astronauts onboard the International Space Station.

This type of radiation is modulated by solar activity. Solar storms and CMEs tend to sweep aside cosmic rays, making it more difficult for cosmic rays to reach Earth. On the other hand, low solar activity allows an extra dose of cosmic rays to reach our planet. Indeed, the ongoing increase in cosmic ray intensity is probably due to a decline in the solar cycle. Solar Maximum has passed and we are heading toward a new Solar Minimum. Forecasters expect solar activity to drop sharply in the years ahead, and cosmic rays are poised to increase accordingly. Stay tuned for more radiation.

Cosmic Rays are Intensifying

For the past year, neutron monitors around the Arctic Circle have sensed an increasing intensity of cosmic rays. Polar latitudes are a good place to make such measurements, because Earth’s magnetic field funnels and concentrates cosmic radiation there. Turns out, Earth’s poles aren’t the only place cosmic rays are intensifying. Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been launching helium balloons to the stratosphere to measure radiation, and they find the same trend over California:

In the plot, neutron monitor measurements from the University of Oulu Cosmic Ray Station are traced in red; gamma-ray/X-ray measurements over California are denoted in gray. The agreement between the two curves is remarkable. It means that the intensification of cosmic rays is making itself felt not only over the poles, but also over lower latitudes where Earth’s magnetic field provides a greater degree of protection against deep space radiation.

Cosmic rays, which are accelerated toward Earth by distant supernova explosions and other violent events, are an important form of space weather. They can seed clouds, trigger lightning, and penetrate commercial airplanes. Indeed, our measurements show that someone flying back and forth across the continental USA, just once, can absorb as much ionizing cosmic radiation as 2 to 5 dental X-rays. Likewise, cosmic rays can affect mountain climbers, high-altitude drones, and astronauts onboard the International Space Station.

This type of radiation is modulated by solar activity. Solar storms and CMEs tend to sweep aside cosmic rays, making it more difficult for cosmic rays to reach Earth. On the other hand, low solar activity allows an extra dose of cosmic rays to reach our planet. Indeed, the ongoing increase in cosmic ray intensity is probably due to a decline in the solar cycle. Solar Maximum has passed and we are heading toward a new Solar Minimum. Forecasters expect solar activity to drop sharply in the years ahead, and cosmic rays are poised to increase accordingly. Stay tuned for more radiation.

Meteor Balloon in the Stratosphere

When the Geminid meteor shower peaked on Dec. 14th, a snowstorm was in progress over the mountains of central California. No stars? No problem. Using a helium balloon, the students of Earth to Sky Calculus launched a low-light camera to photograph the shower high above the obscuring clouds. Their experimental payload ascended to 91,000 feet where the night sky looked like this:

The big white object at the top of the frame is the balloon, surrounded by some of the bright stars and planets of the pre-dawn sky. From the lower stratosphere, the freezing camera was able to see stars as dim as 2nd magnitude. This wasn’t as sensitive as the students had hoped, but it was good enough to record several Geminid fireballs. Here are a couple of movies showing Geminids emerging from behind the balloon: fireball #1, fireball #2. In the movies, stars and planets move in a lazy circle around the balloon–a result of the payload’s gentle spin–while Geminids streak in straight lines. The camera also recorded the balloon exploding at the apex of the flight, and the payload parachuting back to Earth.

The students plan to observe more meteor showers in the future with even better results. They believe they can boost the sensitivity of the camera by, e.g., warming the payload bay during the flight and improving the camera’s focus, pre-launch. If their improvements succeed, they could establish ballooning as a practical and fun way to monitor meteor showers in all kinds of weather. Stay tuned for updates.

Solar Eclipse in the Stratosphere

On Oct. 23rd, 2014, just as the New Moon was about to pass in front of the sun, the students of Earth to Sky Calculus launched a helium balloon carrying a Nikon D7000 camera. Their goal: to set the record for high-altitude photography of an eclipse. During a two-hour flight to the edge of space, the camera captured 11 images of the crescent sun. The final picture, taken just a split second before the balloon exploded, was GPS-tagged with an altitude of 108,900 feet:

To put this achievement into context, consider the following: Most people who photographed the eclipse carefully mounted their cameras on a rock-solid tripod, or used the precision clock-drive of a telescope to track the sun. The students, however, managed the same trick from an un-stabilized platform, spinning, buffeted by wind, and racing upward to the heavens at 15 mph. Their photos show that DLSR astrophotography from an suborbital helium balloon is possible, and they will surely refine their techniques for even better photos in the future.

Hey thanks! The students wish to thank AutomationDirect.com for sponsoring this flight. Their $500 contribution paid for the helium and other supplies necessary to get the balloon off the ground. Note the Automation Direct logo in this picture of the payload ascending over the Sierra Nevada mountains of central California:

Another notable picture shows the payload ascending over clouds, which blocked the eclipse at ground level but did not prevent photography from the balloon.

Readers, would you like to sponsor a student research flight and have your logo photographed at the edge of space? Contact Dr. Tony Phillips to get involved.