Science

Helium carries measurement technology into the atmosphere


Helium carries measurement technology into the atmosphere

Predicting the weather

Weather services use helium to carry their measurement instruments into the skies. Helium balloons lift radiosondes to heights of up to 35 kilometers where sensors measure air pressure, air temperature, humidity and high altitude winds. Ground stations receive the measurement signals, process them, and deliver them to weather service information centers, where they can be applied immediately for their many different purposes. There are about 800 points around the world where radiosondes are launched, including some on ships and offshore platforms.

A weather balloon is very much like a normal balloon: a rubber skin filled with hydrogen or helium, it is carried up into the air by the buoyancy of the lightweight gas. It is somewhat larger than the typical children’s toy, however, and rises significantly higher – into the stratosphere, actually. The diminishing air pressure causes it to expand more and more until it ultimately bursts. During its ascent, its instruments measure air pressure, air humidity, wind speed and other parameters and transmit that information to the ground station. After the balloon bursts, the gondola’s descent back to earth is slowed by a parachute. 
Most balloons used for routine measurements are equipped with disposable instruments that are never recovered.

Researching thunderstorms

When it comes to weather research, satellites, aircraft and drones cannot compete with the simple gas-filled balloon. During its slow ascent, it can carry measurement instruments to a height of up to 35 kilometers. Along the way, it collects data with a degree of detail that cannot be achieved using other means of transport.

The gas-filled balloons are also used to obtain new findings relative to the formation of thunderstorm fronts and the processes within thunderstorm cells. We do not yet know exactly what processes take place in thunderstorm cells – information that would be useful for predicting the formation of thunderstorms with greater precision. To collect the required data, the balloon must rise as closely as possible to the thunderstorm front, where it not only measures conditions, but can also provide spectacular images from the stratosphere.