365daysDate: July 27, 2009

Title: Astronomical Ballooning – Or, What Goes Up Must Come Down


Podcaster: Sarah Tuttle from Columbia Astronomy

Organization: Columbia University Astronomy

Description: Scientific balloons are a (relatively) cheap and cheerful way to do novel astronomy and test ideas. I’ll be talking about our recent flight of FIREBall – Faint Intergalactic Redshifted Emission Balloon. Our May flight from Fort Sumner, NM (burial spot of Billy the Kid) is the second for FIREBall, and we hope to map emission from the Cosmic Web – the gas in between galaxies that will reveal information about the distribution of matter in the universe. Hear what a balloon launch sounds like and learn about this exciting way to explore astronomy.

Bio: Sarah Tuttle is a fifth year graduate student in Astronomy at Columbia University. Her thesis project hinges on something which is designed to plummet 100,000ft out of the sky. When she’s not panicking, she’s pursuing activities that work towards lowering her generally elevated blood pressure. She received her bachelor’s degree in physics from UCSC studying polymers and making LEDs. When someone suggested the manufacture of an animated burrito wrapper she switched back to astrophysics.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of ‘365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the American Astronomical Society, the major organization for professional astronomers in North America, whose members remind everyone that One Sky Connects Us All. Find out more or join the AAS at


Hello everyone, and welcome to Columbia Mondays! My name is Sarah Tuttle and I’m a 5th year graduate student at Columbia University in the City of New York. Today the topic of our podcast is going to be Scientific Ballooning.

Did you catch that? It was the sound of a scientific balloon being inflated. I’ll play it again.

Imagine that sound going on for an hour. That is the sound of one balloon filling with helium on the launch pad. When I was offered the chance to work on a balloon project for my thesis, I jumped right in. I didn’t even know what to ask. I mean, I was going to build part of a telescope and that seemed pretty interesting. I thought about the biggest balloons I’d ever seen – hot air balloons or maybe the Hindenburg. Which I know isn’t even a balloon – but it’s the closest big floating flying thing I could imagine, at the time.
Let me start with the numbers.

These are serious balloons. Imagine the flying house from the movie “UP”. Each balloon we use is filled with millions of cubic feet of helium gas. On the ground, it looks the same size as a tanker truck, between 100 and 200 feet long. And once it reaches float altitude, the balloon expands to the size of four football fields in diameter. (oooh, ahh).

The balloon ascends to an altitude of between 100 and 135 thousand feet during the day. To give you a sense of scale, that is more than three times the altitude at which commercial airplanes fly. During our flight we could still see the balloon from the ground. It was about a quarter of the size of the full moon and you could still see the shape of the balloon and the folds of the fabric, just three thin layers of Mylar. The balloon material feels a lot like a vegetable bag from the grocery store. The experiment hangs almost one thousand feet below the balloon. Our payload weighed almost six thousand pounds and was over 20 feet tall.

One of the best parts of flying a balloon is that you get to be there when it launches. Unfortunately, this is an audio podcast, so I can’t show you the video of our launch. Instead, I can play for you the authentic reaction of people like you – in this instance, the students working in our lab at Columbia:

I won’t leave you in suspense. We had a successful although slightly eventful launch and a wonderfully successful flight. It will take many months of work reducing the data before we know the scientific results, but we have high hopes.

Our project is called FIREBall. That stands for the Faint Intergalactic Redshifted Emission balloon. It is a collaboration between Columbia University, Caltech, and two French laboratories, L.A.M. and CNES. Together we built a 1m telescope with a fiber fed integral field unit. The spectrograph provides almost 250 spectra spread over an area of 2 square arcminutes. This will allow us to study the three dimensional structure of the intergalactic medium. We’re trying to detect these structures in emission, something that hasn’t been done like this before. Our successful flight you just heard was six weeks ago from Fort Sumner, New Mexico. And we’re not alone. These balloon flights are happening several times a year from sites around the world.

The Spring 2009 season illustrates the diverse specialties explored by balloon. Four experiments flew from Fort Sumner, NM. Billy the Kid’s last hometown, the site has been host to something close to 150 launches since 1988. The other three flights this spring were to qualify equipment for Antarctic campaigns. Our experiment takes data only at night, many groups can take advantage of the continuous daylight provided by the polar regions. Those flights can continue on for weeks. The flights from New Mexico are usually between 10-36 hours and covered several areas within astrophysics. CREST (Cosmic Ray Electron Synchrotron Telescope) will try to constrain sources of high energy cosmic rays to better understand their sources in our galaxy. NCT is looking at several key emission sources, including studying line emission from galactic electron-positron annihilation. The last project, EBEX, will be searching for E & B polarization in the cosmic microwave background.

There are many other resources available for learning about scientific ballooning. Stratocat is an excellent website cataloguing balloon flights and history. CSBF (Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility) is the NASA branch that runs all of the logistics and launching of the balloons.

You can check out our group website at

The other websites mentioned, including a link to the launch video, are listed in the transcript of this recording.

Stratocat :
Launch Video:
Launch Pictures:

No science was harmed in the making of this podcast.
This has been a podcast of Columbia University here in the City of New York. For more information about public events of Columbia Astronomy visit Our next Columbia Monday podcast will be by Destry Saul – Monday, August 31st ”The Accidental and Amateur Birth of Radio Astronomy”. Have a great day and keep listening.

End of podcast:

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