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Intrepid Explorers Gathering More Data than Ever Before

NOAA image of Smart Balloon before deployment being inspected by NOAA research scientist Randy Johnson.Feb. 9, 2007 NOAA Research balloons have evolved to become viable and reliable real-time sources of meteorological and atmospheric conditions by staying aloft in all types of weather. Today’s balloons can withstand hurricane force conditions collecting a spectrum of data that far surpasses their Mylar (thin strong polyester film) predecessors. (Click NOAA image for larger view of Smart Balloon before deployment being inspected by NOAA research scientist Randy Johnson. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

The use of ‘autonomous’ weather balloons capable of collecting atmospheric data is relatively new; getting its start very early in the 20th century. NOAA smart balloons are now in their fourth generation providing an array of data to include: temperature; precipitation; barometric pressure; humidity; solar radiation; infrared (IR) surface temperature; and ozone.

NOAA image of Smart Balloon transponder.These smart balloons also are equipped with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) transponders that allow research scientists to track balloon position, speed, altitude and flight path. Valuable data in determining storm velocities and general atmospheric motion in a frame of reference that scientists refer to as Lagrangian, named after the 18th century mathematician, Joseph Louis Lagrange. The basis of the Lagrangian reference measures a volume of air as that volume is transported with the wind. In other words, the balloons are horizontally mobile with limited vertical motion—carried by winds in the lower atmosphere—giving the balloons the formal name; Lagrangian Smart Balloons. (Click NOAA image for larger view of Smart Balloon transponder. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

NOAA image of first generation Smart Balloon known as a tetroon from the 1950s.“First generation smart balloons were tetrahedral balloons constructed of Mylar, carrying only a GPS receiver, microprocessor and radio transmitter,” said Randy Johnson, a research scientist at the Field Research Division of the NOAA Air Resources Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho. These early designs were incapable of altitude adjustment, and data could only be retrieved by aircraft in the general area of the balloon.”

Constructed of Spectra fabric, fourth generation balloons are powered by a rechargeable lithium Ion battery charged from flexible solar cells mounted to the top of the balloon. The rechargeable power source provides the balloon with worldwide two-way satellite communications for data transmission from the balloon and for operator commands to control the balloon. (Click NOAA image for larger view of first generation Smart Balloon known as a tetroon from the 1950s. Please credit “NOAA.”)

Since on-board instrumentation is the key component to these research labs in the sky, protecting them is crucial. This is done by inserting the components into a protective fiberglass cylinder, somewhat larger than a cookie jar, and mounting the entire casing inside the high strength balloon shell. For greater protection, these fabric balloons are equipped with a polyurethane film that covers a large portion of the balloon’s top-side exterior to keep rain and condensation from soaking the fabric and causing an excessive increase in the balloon weight.

NOAA image of Smart Balloon solar panels.Capable of transoceanic flight, smart balloons allow scientists to determine ozone concentration of the surrounding air mass and its trajectory, while continuously recording meteorological conditions throughout the flight; data that are valuable in climate change studies. In the future, these balloons may possibly be used to record never before captured hurricane data. The balloons would be launched from a strategic location allowing them to capture the hurricane’s ‘in-flow’ and collect, along with the myriad of other data, thermodynamic information from the storm that can be merged with data from reconnaissance aircraft providing a more complete and accurate picture of storm intensity and change. (Click NOAA image for larger view of Smart Balloon solar panels. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

The NOAA Air Resources Laboratory studies, processes and develops models that relate to air quality and climate. Research concentrates on technology development as it relates to the transport, dispersion, transformation and removal of trace gases and aerosols, exchanged between the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, and includes the role of natural variability. The specific goal of the lab’s research is to improve prediction of air quality, atmospheric deposition (the measure of select compounds as they settle on the Earth’s surface), and related variables.

NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is celebrating 200 years of science and service to the nation. From the establishment of the Survey of the Coast in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson to the formation of the Weather Bureau and the Commission of Fish and Fisheries in the 1870s, much of America's scientific heritage is rooted in NOAA. NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of the nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 60 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

Relevant Web Sites
NOAA Field Research Division

NOAA Air Resources Laboratory

Media Contact:
Daniel Parry, NOAA Research, (301) 734-1092
(Photos courtesy of Randy Johnson of the NOAA Field Research Division.)