Researchers from the University of Calgary are launching four unmanned helium balloons to better understand the aurora borealis.
The Energetic Particle Explorer Mission will measure high-energy auroral X-rays to give insight to researchers on high-energy electrons and how they are created.
The balloons are 100 feet tall when fully inflated and will float 110,000 feet in the air – which is three times the typical jet cruising altitude.
Project Lead Christopher Cully tells Mix News they are trying to better understand how the northern lights are formed and how it impacts the atmosphere.
“Electrons from space that get accelerated down and hit the earth’s atmosphere and they glow when they hit the atmosphere. When those electrons start out with an extreme energy, they come down and not only create visible aurora – they create X-ray aurora.”
Cully says the balloons will hover for around 10 hours before descending somewhere near Peace River and will be visible to the naked eye for hundreds of kilometres.
He notes the data collected will be used to better understand how the particles impact space travel.
“When those energetic particles are in the environment and one of the big reasons they can drain out is because they do come down into the atmosphere. So, understanding when the earth naturally cleans the particles out of the system is an important thing for understanding the space environment.”
Cully also notes once enough information is collected – they will destroy the balloons and recover the data for research.
“They’ll explode, and everything will fall under a parachute. So, really the only flight control that we have is that terminate option. So, we can choose exactly where along the flight path we’re going to terminate to try and land in a good location but really once it’s up there – it’s going with the wind.”
The balloons will be airborne from now until August 10.