Physics of An Exploding Cosmic Ray Balloon

Feb. 21, 2019: On Nov. 14, 2018, the students of Earth to Sky Calculus launched a space weather balloon to measure increasing levels of cosmic rays in the atmosphere. At the apex of the flight, the balloon exploded and the radiation sensors parachuted back to Earth. A video camera on top of the payload recorded the pop:


These images illustrate recent findings about the physics of exploding balloons. In a Physical Review Letter entitled “Popping Balloons: A Case Study of Dynamical Fragmentation,” researchers from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris report a series of laboratory experiments in which one balloon after another was popped and analyzed.

Basically, there are two ways a balloon can pop: along a single tear (the “opening regime”) or along many tears (the “fragmentation regime”). This video shows the two regimes in action. Which way the balloon decided to pop depends on the stress in the rubber membrane. When the stress is low, it can be relieved with a single tear, but when the stress is high, many tears are required to do the job.

Space weather balloons explode in the fragmentation regime, and the new research explains why. When space weather balloons are launched, they measure no more than 6 to 8 feet in diameter. By the time they reach the stratosphere, they have stretched into a sphere as wide as a house. So much stress requires many tears to release.

More information about this research is available from the American Physical Society.

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