Modern Balloons

Photo: At sea aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) May 27, 2002 — Aerographer’s Mate 3rd Class Keith Phillips from San Antonio, TX, prepares to launch a weather balloon. Weather balloons rise to a height of 20,000 feet and provide important weather data for the Kitty Hawk battle group. Kitty Hawk is providing a forward presence in the Asia/Pacific region, conducting training and exercises with regional allies. Kitty Hawk is the Navy’s only permanently forward deployed aircraft carrier and is homeported in Yokosuka, Japan. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Lindsay R. Minturn. (RELEASED)

Today, balloons are used for pleasure and sport and still have scientific and military applications. Balloons continue to be used for many different purposes and a significant number of the great firsts in aviation history were achieved with them. Many of the altitude records of aviation history, some as late as the 1960s, were set with balloons. Some balloons achieved altitudes so high that they actually left the atmosphere and orbited the earth.

Source: A weather balloon explodes in the stratosphere. Antonino Vara, 2021.

During the early days of the space program, some satellites were hybrids between satellites and balloons. Balloons have been used as portable radio towers and extensively for atmospheric research experiments. Balloons for atmospheric research are sometimes called thermasondes or radiosondes, depending on how they are equipped.

Source: Fire behavior analyst trainee Phil Knard and Incident Meteorologist Dan Borsum prepare to launch a weather balloon. Data from this balloon helps predict local weather and fire behavior for the day. NPS/Neal Herbert. Yellowstone National Park, 2021.

There are also modified configurations of the balloon’s basic shape, some of which are called tetroons. These are simply balloons shaped similar to a tetrahedron. Most of the unusual configurations are used for very special purposes, such as aerial buoys. Balloons were used extensively to study atmospheric currents up to the 1970s and still serve this role today, but in a much reduced extent.

A US Weather Service Technician Releasing A Thermasonde weather balloon at Los Angeles, California.Photo: Gene Daniels, US Environmental Protection Agency. September, 1973.National Archives and Records Administration.Still Picture Branch; College Park, Maryland.

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