Nicknamed the “Little Balloon That Could,” a research balloon was launched in a test run from McMurdo Station in Antarctica in December of last year. Physicist Robyn Millan, principal investigator on the project, anxiously watched as it slowly soared to 112,000 feet, only slightly lower than its goal of 120,000 feet, knowing its success would bode well for her grand plan to launch 20 such balloons in 2013 and 2014. And why send these fairly small (they’re 90 feet in diameter) spheres so high into the atmosphere over the southern ice regions of Earth? Each balloon will help track electrons from space that are pulled into the Earth’s magnetic field and slide down into our atmosphere. These electrons are an important part of the turbulent magnetic space weather system that extends from the sun to Earth. Figuring out how these electrons work can help to protect humans in space and sensitive electronics on spacecraft like those used for global positioning systems and communications. Stay tuned for a balloon’s eye view.
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