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BASE Prepares for Flights 32 and 33 During Winter Term

January 7, 2009

base_burst_sequenceOn a cold Saturday in January, Professor of Physics and Astronomy Howard L. Brooks and his students will release a helium-filled research balloon. It will rise nearly 100,000 feet above Indiana, carrying a tail of equipment used to collect atmospheric data, track the balloon's movement, and record the flight in images and video.

As the air pressure surrounding the balloon decreases at higher elevations, it will expand from its original eight-foot diameter to more than 25 feet, burst (seen left), and then fall back to Earth under its parachute. Brooks' retrieval team, using radio tracking devices and predictive software, will—with a little luck—retrieve their equipment a few hours after launch.

Since 2006, Brooks' Balloon Assisted Stratospheric Experiment (BASE) project has built and launched 31 balloons. Winter Term 2009 will see two additional flights: BASE-32 on Jan. 10 and BASE-33 on Jan. 17. The project started as a way to teach research methodology to DePauw students and has since been adapted for use by local high school students with the help of a Lilly Endowment grant.

The balloons that BASE flies aren't as large as some that are used to carry complex equipment into the atmosphere, but their low cost and smaller size (the FAA limits research balloons of this type to 12 pounds) provide a number of advantages.

"Smaller balloons allow us to do a simultaneous launch, with readings of cosmic ray activity on a grid from here to Iowa," says Brooks. "We can see seasonal variations, even time-of-day variations. We're small enough and light enough that we are allowed to launch whenever we want. As a result, we have a lot of flexibility. We can make up in frequency what others can do with a single flight."

By Brooks' estimate, the 12 flights that BASE launched last year accounted for 10 percent of the smaller research balloons flown nationally.

During the course of a normal flight, a research balloon can travel a long distance. Some balloons land in Indiana, others in Ohio; but one flight, lost by the retrieval team, eventually washed up on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. It wasn't until Brooks received a call from a concerned beachgoer that he was able to locate the lost equipment.

base_horizon"It was within 45 minutes of making it to Nova Scotia that day," says Brooks. "If the balloon had made it to sunset, it would have stopped expanding. There would have been no sunlight to heat the balloon to cause it to rise and burst."

Another balloon came down in a tree owned by a World War II veteran who had been stationed in England with the U.S. Army Air Corps. While there, he flew weather balloons similar to the ones BASE uses.

In November 2007, BASE participated in High Altitude Launch Opportunity (HALO), a collaborative project involving colleges across the Midwest. When in flight, HALO balloons created a communications network much like a series of orbiting satellites, but at a fraction of the cost. A similar balloon network could be used to provide improvised long-range communication in case of emergency, or a temporary Internet alternative to remote areas of the planet. This April, BASE will participate in a second HALO to build on the successes of the first outing.

Read more about Brooks on his University profile page, or about BASE at the project homepage, which features videos and pictures from previous flights. When launched, the BASE flights can be tracked live at